As an English-speaking American man in 2020, I know my perspective is limited. This list, which was originally intended to be much briefer, reflects that truth about myself.
- Abel Ferrara – Abel Ferrara is often thought of as a cult director, especially if one surveys his early work. Driller Killer is among the trashiest movies of all time, Ms. 45 is yet another rape-and-revenge flick, and Fear City’s lurid combination of strip clubs, a guilt-ridden boxer, and a martial artist serial killer comes across as comedic rather than harrowing.
But during the 1990s, Ferrara’s provocative subject matter carries more dramatic and political weight. King of New York, released in 1990, is a compelling example: on the surface, it’s another hardcore gangster movie, but it’s an incisive story in which protagonist Frank White (played by Christopher Walken) appears to depart from the racism of your typical white mob boss and even embraces black culture. White is violent, but he claims he only kills men who deserve it, and afterward he uses his money to invest in the black community. By the film’s climax, though, when White’s life is in danger, he proves to be no better than the rest, as he threatens an innocent black woman on a subway to keep a cop at bay. Notably, this revelation about White’s true nature seemed to escape rapper The Notorious B.I.G., who referred to himself as the “black Frank White.” It just goes to show that notwithstanding Ferrara’s in-your-face approach, there’s subtlety to his filmmaking if you care to look. Indeed, Ferrara’s moral view of criminal aspirations in the 1990s registers as an implicit rejection of Martin Scorsese’s more fetishistic angle (see Goodfellas) on living large as a criminal. In 1996’s The Funeral, Ferrara doesn’t bother showing the bright side of being in the mob, instead underscoring the utter tragedy of buying into violent machismo, all within a non-masturbatory 99 minutes.
Ferrara evolved again in the 21st century, though most critics have failed to understand the maturity behind this artistic shift. Take 4:44 Last Day On Earth, which many dismissed as a ho-hum depiction of humanity’s final hours. What people miss — in their lust for popcorn spectacle or melodramatic posturing — is that even in anticipation of mass death, being in contact with whom you love is all that matters. Ferrara delivers this message in 4:44 Lady Day On Earth with calm (as noted by Chuck Bowen) and without being corny. The insight rings even truer in 2020, as social distance restrictions continue to prevent families from visiting their dying relatives in hospitals. When we stare Armageddon in the eye, we want to be as normal as possible.
For the first time, I recently watched Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, the most daring film of the last decade. Even though Welcome to New York makes explicit reference to a high-profile rape case that occurred in 2011, the movie feels like an anachronism, a return to the convicted, screw-the-powers-that-be artistry that defined directors like Orson Welles and Pier Paolo Pasolini. What makes Welcome to New York greater than the average smear piece is that Ferrara examines the human fallibilities of a real monster, drawing attention to the protagonist’s oblivious yet knowing descent into political, social, and spiritual annihilation. There’s even a chance for us to reflect on our own lives as we recoil in disgust. Toward the end of Welcome to New York, the rapist politician proclaims, “No one wants to be saved.” In a country like the modern United States where people are quicker to reach for the plank in other people’s eyes, the line has vicious relevance.
- Brian De Palma – The common knock against Brian De Palma is that he’s a Hitchcock wannabe who takes violence too far, relies too much on tropes, and is little more than a fun time at best.
This type of dismissal overlooks the fact that De Palma is a masterful technician (see: the climactic explosive stunt in Mission: Impossible and the otherworldly mirror shots in Dressed to Kill); that he has lampooned everything from the music industry (Phantom of the Paradise) to 1980s racism and classism (The Bonfire of the Vanities) to Hollywood neo-noir (Body Double); that he courageously redefined the beyond-stale concept of the “fatal woman” into something hopeful and uplifting (Femme Fatale); and that, despite his sensational and subversive qualities, he can make a rip-roaring blockbuster with pop smarts and moral evolution to spare (The Untouchables, where we see Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness go from a by-the-book treasury agent to a man driven to violent revenge for immediately understandable personal reasons).
Only a lazy critic fails to account for everything De Palma has attempted. His large body of work departs from Hitchcock as much as it nods to the master of suspense. Even something as overrated as Scarface illustrates this point: yes, Scarface’s chainsaw sequence, where De Palma’s camera exits through a window in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong, owes a massive debt to the moment in Frenzy when Hitchcock rejects the audience’s voyeuristic wish to observe, for a second time, a serial rapist and killer’s crimes by gradually pulling the camera down some steps, out of the front door of the apartment building, and all the way into a street. But the mood is different in these films after the camera escapes, and this difference has cultural importance. In Frenzy, there is a feeling of detachment as you see people going about their lives while a woman is ravaged and murdered in the building — this is in keeping with Hitchcock’s satirical view of the British citizenry’s self-centered obliviousness throughout the film. In Scarface, the sight of Tony Montana’s friends sitting in a convertible surrounded by palm trees provides a revealing juxtaposition as Montana deals with his violent predicament off-camera: the glorious opportunity and materialism of America versus the same country’s underbelly of illicit, destructive activity.
- Wendell B. Harris Jr. – How can Wendell B. Harris Jr. be underrated if he has directed just one movie, 1989’s Chameleon Street? My simple claim is that Chameleon Street is an all-time great American film whose extraordinary qualities have largely gone unnoticed for 30 years.
Imagine if Charles Laughton weren’t commended for only directing The Night of the Hunter (1955), which had the good fortune to be reappraised by critics after its unpopular original release. Despite being an entertaining and idiosyncratic satirical drama about race, male frustration, and deception, Chameleon Street hasn’t gotten a second chance like The Night of the Hunter did. The reason for this difference seems clear: as haunting as The Night of the Hunter is, it features a well-defined conflict between good and evil as well as familiar star performers. Chameleon Street, on the other hand, involves a little-known black director/actor, whose artistic aims defy Hollywood traditions, depicting the activities of a rarely discussed real-life con man (William Street), so the marketability has never been there for Harris’ offbeat debut.
Few films burst with psychological force like Chameleon Street. Voiceovers reveal both the conscious and unconscious aspects of Street’s psyche, an instant-replay technique pinpoints how Street’s interactions with people contribute to his compulsive pursuits by nagging at his brain, and a blurred train in motion is used to transition into new scenes and convey the racing quality of Street’s mind. When Street engages in high-stakes deceit, as when he performs a hysterectomy with no formal training as a surgeon, the anxiety of Street makes him strangely relatable (the bit where Street, with great paranoia, describes the evolving facial expressions of a lead physician provides a darkly comedic view into Street’s scrambling ego).
Notwithstanding that Street is a liar of the highest order, his experiences, both hysterical and disturbing, reflect uncomfortable social truths as much as they highlight a man of unorthodox intelligence. Street’s intellectual spill about grammar and profanity to a racist white man in a bar provides a small but telling demonstration of how Street, as a black man, puts in an incredible amount of work to navigate unfavorable social circumstances. Street’s ridiculous successes as a deceiver shows more than a con man playing a game for money (though economic gain is, quite understandably, a huge source of pressure for Street as a husband and father). Street, more than anything, has mastered the tricky art of giving white people what they want to see. For daring to address the subject of double consciousness in an unusual and powerful way, Harris and his lone riff Chameleon Street should be far more than a footnote in film history.
- Charles Burnett – Charles Burnett doesn’t settle on one major idea in a given film. The many themes that run through a single Burnett picture come with a richness and maturity of thought, and yet there’s enough left unsaid, enough material for the viewer to dissect and dwell upon well after the credits roll. He’s an independent person who refuses to water down his approach, whose technique with the camera suits what he has to say. These characteristics mark the work of many other all-time great filmmakers, from Fellini to Bergman, from Jodorowsky to Kurosawa, from Altman to Bresson. Burnett has earned a place among these giants.
As such, it’s criminal that Burnett has been directing full-length movies since 1978 and still flies under the radar.
I think of Nightjohn, which uncannily dramatizes numerous complexities about American slavery, whether it’s the dual effect of Christianity (which reinforced the oppressors as much as it gave hope to the oppressed), the realization that having a dollar value attached to one’s body was the only thing that kept an owner from outright killing that same body, or the fear and emancipation that came with learning to read under the noses of the powers that be. All of this astute storytelling, and Nightjohn never made it to the big screen. It was a 1996 television film. I say with a generous amount of frustration that certain masterpieces aren’t a natural fit for the capitalist machine, and they’re in danger of being forgotten as white liberal Hollywood pretends to care about artistic expression and cultural truth.
If there were such a thing as film culture justice, a movie like The Glass Shield would be widely discussed in 2020. It showcases a black man who has dedicated himself to public service as a police officer, but he cannot escape the influence of the corrupt brotherhood that conspires to explain away the racial discrimination of certain officers. In the United States today, there’s a sense that our society will burn before any broad concerns about our justice system are resolved. A section of our tragic institutional web was outlined more than two decades ago in The Glass Shield.
There’s no one quite like Burnett, as proven by his multifaceted documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. Rather than feign certainty about the ultimate status of the divisive leader of the legendary slave revolt, Burnett interviews myriad sources to present countless diverging theories and feelings, embracing the controversy that has surrounded Turner for almost two centuries. Because Burnett leans into the interpretative and folklorish history of Turner, the staged reenactments — a device that makes other docs feel cheap and pandering — register as more than appropriate in that they symbolize the various imaginations of the public.
In a Bergman-esque scene, Burnett interviews himself in Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. He says this about his documentary:
We can’t say, in this film, that this person’s wrong or that person’s wrong. It’s not about that. The truth is this event [Turner’s violent rebellion] happened. People interpret it a certain way by racial lines, and the only way to resolve it, to live with it, is to have some sort of dialogue and come to terms with ‘What was this event?’
Then, almost absurdly, Burnett’s next interviewee warns against relativism. It’s a humbling intellectual moment when Burnett casts doubt on his own take. Wisdom is as messy as human nature — that’s Burnett’s undeniable genius trying to speak to a complacent world that, in large part, still hasn’t listened.
- Peter Weir – It’s almost impossible to guess what theme or culture a given Peter Weir movie will tap into. Critics and audiences often say they want originality, so it’s more than a little ironic that Weir’s lack of predictability hasn’t resulted in a more valued filmography. Having said all of that, perhaps there is a hard-to-spot spiritual thread running through some of Weir’s work that has particular (overlooked) relevance for our lives today.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is among Weir’s most recognized films for constructing a missing persons mystery that has no resolution. Yet the most fascinating aspect about Picnic at Hanging Rock has less to do with the unresolved nature of its plot and more to do with this mystical sense that the disappearance of the schoolgirls was somehow predestined and connected to the titular former volcano. As the girls and adult supervisors ride in a carriage toward the site of the picnic, dialogue among the characters veers toward the idea that Hanging Rock has been “waiting just” for them for a million years (the volcano’s geological age, says teacher Miss McCraw). During the picnic itself, a student suggests that she and her classmates are the “only living creatures in the whole world.” Because Weir alludes to the naivety of youth here, some may interpret these scenes as a comment on innocence. But there’s more to the words of these young folk — namely a silly type of privilege that believes the world exists solely for one’s entertainment or advancement.
When four of the girls decide to hike up Hanging Rock, a series of dissolves alternates hypnotically between images of the awestruck girls and shots of the mountainous formation. It’s as if the students are melding into the rugged landscape. “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place,” one girl muses in the manner of a prophet. At times the girls move in slow motion, suggesting they are ghosts in progress. Soon, we see flies and lizards crawling on and around their prostrate bodies. Even if Hanging Rock had been waiting just for the students, it was for a purpose beyond the young ladies’ simple amusement. While the remainder of the film deals with the tragic fallout that follows the girls’ disappearance — and yes, it’s obviously a possibility that the students were snatched by evil members of the opposite sex — Weir hints in multiple ways that the terrible event was meant to happen. With this in mind, Picnic at Hanging Rock challenges us to consider the meaning behind a negative destiny rather than wallow in the unexplainable unfairness of existence. In 2020, a year of abrupt death and widespread social panic and unrest, Picnic at Hanging Rock functions as an eerie reminder that we can’t expect to experience life in ideal terms. What we do with that realization will have eternal spiritual ramifications, I would wager.
Even though Witness, a 1985 American production starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, appears to have little in common with Picnic at Hanging Rock — outside of showcasing Weir’s obvious affinity for grass and weeds — this film also encourages a reexamination of how one views life in a given context. The plot of Witness kicks off when an Amish boy, Samuel, and his widowed mother, Rachel, leave their home for a short time to see Rachel’s sister, who lives in an urban area. At a train station, Samuel goes to the bathroom and ends up witnessing a murder committed by a corrupt cop. Detective John Book is assigned the case, but when Book starts to put the pieces together, he gets shot and wounded by the conspiratorial forces that be. After Book drives the boy and Rachel to their home, the Amish community nurses Book back to health and allows him to hide on its land.
This set-up thus makes Book (and us) a witness to a set of practices and values outside of mainstream America. Weir treats the Amish culture with respect as opposed to curiosity. When Book and the Amish men literally stand up a barn in one day, Weir presents the feat with an infectious type of wonder. More significantly, Book, who represents our more liberal desires and ethics, begins to see himself from a different vantage point, in particular when the romantic chemistry between Rachel and him comes to a head. In a scene that burns with sensuality, Book, through a doorway, gets a direct glimpse into Rachel’s eyes as she stands with her breasts exposed. Book, mouth open, soon looks down. In a regular U.S. context, I’m sure Book wouldn’t look down. But after spending a significant amount of time with the Amish and becoming acquainted with their morality, Book feels shame and resists his lustful urge, which raises a question about how we define sin. From a spiritual angle, Book would lust for Rachel no matter the setting. Does he sense something wrong in this scene purely because of practical concerns? Later, he does allude to the threat of Rachel being forced out of her community if they give into their sexual attraction. The more interesting question, though, follows: did he sense something wrong because his society’s standards are wrong? Because he realized, for a split second, that God’s standard is to resist such temptation? By the end of Witness, Book and Rachel recognize that they must part ways, but Weir leaves open the possibility that Book will see life differently from that point forward.
This notion of perceiving the hidden meaning of our existence also informs the plot of Weir’s box-office smash The Truman Show, another American production. For an Australian outsider, so to speak, Weir has an impressive understanding of what gets Americans off, as The Truman Show, released in 1998, predicts the U.S. citizenry’s fascination with emotionally charged fakeness disguised as heightened reality — that is, reality television. There’s something very screwed up about the viewers in The Truman Show: even after it’s more than apparent that Truman Burbank, a man who was literally born to live in a fabricated world for the public’s amusement, wants to escape from all the lies, the audience keeps tuning in. The viewers are invested in Truman’s newfound mission to become free, but only as part of a continuing broadcast, not as, say, an on-the-ground political movement to de-legitimatize and upend the system that allows a human being like Truman to be utterly commoditized. The complacency of media consumers is most comically demonstrated by a man in a bathtub slapping the water in glee as he watches Truman leave the malevolent fantasy world.
In his rejection of a false god (a life of comfort constructed by television creator Christof, a sort of anti-Christ figure), Truman as a character speaks to the aforementioned idea of identifying the purpose of life as an inverse of a commonly accepted perception of reality. Unlike the people in Picnic at Hanging Rock, who couldn’t reject the soap opera of the moment in order to arrive at a philosophical resolution, Truman is able to dismiss everything that has been around him to achieve a firmer grasp on truth, on what he should be doing, on what he should have faith in. But we can’t say Truman’s example has been a positive influence on Americans, much less a parallel to modern American behavior. Americans bow before what some form of media tells them. Americans argue incessantly based on a misleading or incomplete understanding of reality. No, we must recognize the cheering immoral fools in The Truman Show as us, and consider breaking away from the failed model of broadcasted truth. I do see an irony in my suggestion: I’m a blogger who will advertise this very feature to a virtual readership on social media. But I pray God will use my words here — the God whom the people in Picnic at Hanging Rock failed to see, the God whom John Book in Witness started to see, and the God whom Truman Burbank in The Truman Show came to see.
- Delmer Daves – When we speak about westerns, names like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Anthony Mann inevitably come up. Delmer Daves should be mentioned among those masters.
It was evident in 2007 that critics didn’t give a flip about Daves when they salivated over the 3:10 to Yuma remake. That Russell Crowe and Christian Bale action vehicle, which has been mostly forgotten in less than 20 years after its release, botched the moral complexity that made Daves’ 1957 film a unique classic of the genre. While Crowe’s Ben Wade was more of a sensationally violent thug with little philosophical logic, Glenn Ford’s Ben Wade was a manipulator who nonetheless couldn’t shake a nagging sense of honor that, at first, only surfaced around women. Daves’ nuanced handling of Wade’s character is precisely why the unusual ending of the original 3:10 to Yuma makes sense (in the remake, the climactic turn of events leaves one baffled, as cheap plot twists with no human foundation tend to do).
Throughout his filmography, Daves strives for multifaceted characterizations that lead to illuminating and even perplexing comment on human nature. His overlooked 1958 feature Cowboy shows how psychological factors can subvert the accepted practice of cultural norms. In Cowboy, Jack Lemmon plays a hotel clerk whose ultimate desire is to go on a real cattle drive. Glenn Ford is the cowboy who reluctantly allows Lemmon to accompany Ford and his men. On the trail, Lemmon expresses disgust about Ford’s insensitivity toward the loss of human life, but Ford tells him that if he doesn’t like this tougher way of living, he can just leave. Eventually, an irony of ironies occurs: Lemmon toughens up so much that Ford, rather than delight in Lemmon’s cultural authenticity, becomes disturbed and concerned, as if he sees a worse version of himself in Lemmon. Ford’s long-time friend, played by Victor Manuel Mendoza, sums up the contradiction: “You made this fellow tough. Now you don’t like what you made.”
Such attention to complicated emotions, no matter the source, made Daves ahead of his time, even in cases where his films suffered from limitations that were typical of the time that he worked in the industry. Broken Arrow, a 1950 picture about a peace treaty between white America and the Apache tribes, illustrates this observation: in old Hollywood fashion, the prominent Apache characters aren’t played by actual Apache individuals (though the extras are), and a romantic subplot seems shoehorned and obligatory at best. Despite these flaws, Broken Arrow shows American Indians in three-dimensional terms — as people with different beliefs, dreams, fears, and motivations. From the very first scene where star Jimmy Stewart finds a wounded Apache boy, the film goes out of its way to set the historical record straight and reject the common western portrayal of tribal people as violent animals without moral reasoning. Broken Arrow also questions any Christian defense of manifest destiny by condemning racism through a reference to the Bible. With Broken Arrow, Daves set a new standard for humanism in the genre, a standard that to this day shines a light on stereotypical depictions in western filmmaking (The Revenant, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).
- Mel Gibson – In the foreseeable future, Gibson’s well-known immorality in his personal life will prevent more than a few people from seriously evaluating his stature as a filmmaker. But as with many artists who wouldn’t make a good role model, Gibson’s talent is something to be reckoned with. Whether it be the scarred visage of a man who isolates himself after a horrible accident (The Man Without a Face), the undying conviction of a soldier as he meets his excruciating demise at the hands of his enemies (Braveheart), or the torn body of a mocked messiah who must carry his own cross (The Passion of the Christ), the imagery of Gibson’s filmography is unforgettable and, if viewed with the proper context, inspiring. Gibson understands bodily destruction as a brutal fact of life (in Apocalypto, human sacrifice is a norm), and each of his films deal with how men respond to that. In most of Gibson’s stories, only something beyond rational thought can explain how his heroes are able to fulfill their atypical destinies (in Hacksaw Ridge, the supernatural is beyond palpable in Gibson’s literal interpretation of “War is hell.”). For a person with multiple confirmed sins and bigotries, Gibson has a startling appreciation for individuals who stand up for the right thing and persist. It’s an open question whether Gibson himself will be redeemed; his characters, however, find divine purpose in the darkest of places.
- John McTiernan – People can yak about the true meaning of auteur all they want: the primary reason John McTiernan doesn’t get more recognition in film discussions is an elitist ideology that overlooks the kinetic power of a good action flick. Watch Die Hard with a Vengeance today and recognize that it’s not just great stunts and explosions and one-liners at work — the perfectly positioned camera on more than one occasion creates the abrupt illusion that you’re in danger of getting crushed by a vehicle, that you’re almost there. (And consider that McTiernan achieved this startling type of immersive terrorism a decade before Spielberg’s Munich and Cuaron’s Children of Men.)
McTiernan also explores more cultural meaning in his pictures than advertised. Not many directors, particularly the more action-savvy ones, can communicate down-to-earth vulnerability. The original Die Hard famously capitalized on the novelty of a gun-wielding hero who doesn’t have shoes, but the concept wouldn’t have soared if McTiernan hadn’t grasped the humorous side of protagonist John McClane’s situation and how that inconvenience of bare feet — as opposed to the overall amount of life-threatening danger that multiple terrorists bring — can trigger a kind of joking commiseration among general audiences (the most powerful image of the film, in a “I feel your pain” sort of way, is when McClane digs glass out of his bloody foot). In fact, one could boldly compare the relatability of Bruce Willis in Die Hard to the relatability of Harold Lloyd in the silent masterpiece Safety Last!
The role of class status in Die Hard goes beyond McClane’s sleeveless white shirt and lack of footwear. Throughout Die Hard, McTiernan savvily emphasizes markers of class difference, and the working class perspective is favored. There’s the clear implication that McClane’s home of New York City symbolizes hard work and that he feels out of sorts in the more glamorous Los Angeles setting — the Nakatomi Plaza epitomizes white-collar pretension (recall McClane’s dismissive “Nice toy” remark about the touch-screen employee directory). Observe that the higher a law enforcement character is ranked (from Paul Gleason’s LAPD deputy chief to Robert Davi’s lead FBI agent), the more arrogant and out of touch they seem. Notice, too, the class tension between McClane and his wife Holly, who assumes her maiden name for her upper-class job, to McClane’s chagrin, and employs a maid. Even when McClane finally stops feeling bitter about Holly’s decision to put her career aspirations over her marriage (from McClane’s standpoint), he refers to his lower class position: “Tell her she’s the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me.”
For more than 30 years, Die Hard has maintained a special place in the minds of everyday American filmgoers because, despite all of the signs that McClane is at the bottom of the food chain, the film puts the bum, not the suit-wearers, in charge. Audiovisually, McTiernan never betrays the spirit of this ultimate theme. The dynamic camerawork is defined by short, precise, and impactful pans. This approach creates a straightforward visual rhythm that the average person can find exciting, even during dialogue scenes. And no, Die Hard’s use of Beethoven’s classical masterpiece “Ode to Joy” doesn’t suggest high-brow intentions. As Zizek explains in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, countless political groups, including those with populist messages, have utilized “Ode to Joy” as a rallying melody. In the context of Die Hard, the symphony might declare, “Finally, we, the working class, have our day!”
On the flip side of Die Hard’s view into the working person’s predicament, we have Predator and its initial downplaying of human limitations. McTiernan’s focus on the respective biceps of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers didn’t merely lead to a beloved Internet meme about racial and homoerotic harmony. The midair arm-wrestling wets one’s appetite for the domination on display when, later, the film’s masculine squad obliterates an encampment in a jungle from every direction. The genius of McTiernan in this action scene is that he places us in a war zone with an awe-inspiring convincingness despite the laughable absurdity of the situation, all to highlight a lack of susceptibility among the action stars. But for the rest of Predator, McTiernan undermines the juggernaut status of these military gods. Not only does this switch from invulernability to vulnerability make the titular creature that much more intimidating, it allows McTiernan to show off the full extent of his talent as he indulges in a brainier, nerve-wracking brand of violence. McTiernan’s oeuvre is more sophisticated and slyer than the film snobs are willing to admit.
- Jonathan Demme – Best Director awards for Silence of the Lambs aside, the name of Jonathan Demme isn’t recognized or uttered as much as it should be. Fellow American filmmakers like Tarantino, Lee, and Cameron (all of whom rightfully appear on my most overrated filmmakers list) can only wish they had the versatility and consistency of Demme, yet they get more of a spotlight.
I could limit the discussion to Demme’s feature films and make a convincing case as to why he’s underrated. (Beloved, an adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel, is the single most underappreciated U.S. film of the 1990s with its deeply humanistic depiction of trauma and persistence.) Instead I’ll take a different route: let’s limit the discussion to his concert films.
It’s difficult to name a more life-affirming movie than Stop Making Sense. I have not been the same since I first saw it. The jaw-dropping histrionics of the Talking Heads, which reaches a hysterical apex when lead singer Daniel Byrne and guitarist Alex Weir run in place like fools during “Burning Down the House,” is matched by Demme’s uncanny knack for capturing both the raw soul and headier concepts of a performance. Part of Demme’s secret is the extent to which he acknowledges the artifices that make music come alive on a big stage (no other director values the work of stagehands as much), but there’s also an undefinable yet undeniably positive effect that Stop Making Sense has on one’s mood.
This effect is the same whether we’re talking about Stop Making Sense, Demme’s first Neil Young movie Heart of Gold, or Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, Demme’s last movie before his death (and I’m not particularly fond of Young or Timberlake). Demme doesn’t lazily waste time by underlining the antics and hand-over-heart theatrics of the audience. Instead, he fetishizes the unifying element of people playing music together, whether from a side or a wide angle. With closer shots, he emphasizes the individual quirks, talents, and joy of every band member — everyone on stage becomes an essential part of a portrait of spiritual transcendence with Demme’s eye — and nurtures a special connection between the viewer and the charismatic leader of the performance in question. The music might be great, but it’s the director who brings a heavenly sense of ecstasy to the very act of viewing the musicians on film. Once you watch a Demme concert movie, the emotion of the experience, even years down the road, is intimately unshakeable.
- John Glen – Out of all the directors who have worked on James Bond movies (including Martin Campbell, who was considered for this list), John Glen shows the greatest appreciation for montage, in part due to his background as an editor. For his first high-profile job, he edited On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had the most rhythmic cuts of any Bond film to that point. Although the Glen-directed Bond films (1981’s For Your Eyes Only through 1989’s Licence to Kill) had their own editors, Glen’s stamp on those five 1980s releases was unmistakable, especially in For Your Eyes Only, which can be enrapturing even with the sound turned off with its beautifully communicative series of images.
Far from a one-trick pony, Glen made every 1980s Bond movie distinct. In addition to its economic, graceful cinematography, For Your Eyes Only had a restrained seriousness to it — an unusual quality for star Roger Moore, who beforehand was largely a caricature of Sean Connery. Then there was Octopussy, which played more like a freaky live-action episode of Looney Tunes filtered through Cold War paranoia. The final Moore entry, A View to a Kill, showed a franchise in desperation: the obvious ancientness of its lead actor needed to be overshadowed by the over-the-top energy of both Christopher Walken and Grace Jones. (It was as if Glen knew the prospects were hopeless but threw a Hail Mary anyway.) With The Living Daylights (Timothy Dalton’s first crack at portraying the spy), Glen drained Bond of his mystique and alpha male tendencies, reducing the icon to a guy seemingly off the street with a jacket you could afford and a smile that was too regular to love or hate. And then Glen capped off the decade with Licence to Kill, which had the audacity to compete with the American brawniness of Stallone and Schwarzenegger flicks.
Glen demonstrated how an action movie series, and a massively popular one at that, can have multiple personalities. His stint with Bond represents a fascinating film lesson that is, sadly, too often ignored.