Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ripping Apart Entertainment Weekly's List of Top 25 Active Directors

A couple of months ago Entertainment Weekly released an absolutely hilarious list of the "Top 25 Active Directors." It wasn't until recently that I had the chance to actually go through it and see just how horrifying it was. In case you haven't heard, EW ceased existing as a relevant publication a couple of years and has recently gone off the deep end in terms of their disposable content, not that it was ever the bastion of journalistic integrity to begin with. It's the kind of magazine you read on the toilet (or maybe flush down it) and has all but become indistinguishable from your US Weekly or OK! Magazine. We should probably just consider ourselves lucky that Michael Bay, McG or Catherine Hardwicke didn't show up on the list.

I'm under no grand delusions that the publication exists for intelligent film commentary and since all lists are completely subjective I approached this one with very low expectations and an open mind. Even still, this has to rank as one of the most laughable movie-related lists I've ever seen. So much so that I had to comment on it. It's just awful, even by their standards. But it's important to look at exactly why.

Their choice of the word "ACTIVE" is curious one, implying that you had to have shown recent results in order to receive consideration for the list. I wholeheartedly agree with that but the problem is that in many cases that was all they looked at and in others they just forgot about it and rewarded certain mainstream filmmakers based on past glory and/or box office receipts. There's more to this than just picking the directors who made the best films since that topic is subjective in itself.

I always thought the fairest way to judge this is by the overall integrity of the filmmakers' body of work--past and present. When you see film, can you tell who's directing it? Do even their bad ones seem to say something important visually and narratively? It shouldn't just be as simple as picking your favorite movies and listing who directed them. The list can be seen here, complete with their somewhat lackluster explanations. Be forewarned though-- it's one of those annoying slide shows. They also ranked the 25 that didn't make the cut, which unsurprisingly included many who should have. Below are my takes on their choices, along with two controversial exclusions I thought were justified.

25. Jon Favreau-This is almost too laughable to talk about and further proof that Iron Man has emerged as one of the most overrated films of the past 5 years. What scares me most about the pick is the possibility that many reading the magazine may actually agree with it. A superhero movie comes along that's slightly above average for a change and everyone's wetting their pants. The further away I move from the movie the less I appreciate about it. Elf? Zathura? Decent films, but please. I suppose I should just be grateful he's in the last spot. By the way, Mickey Rourke looks ridiculous in those photos from Iron Man 2.

24. Pedro Almodóvar- I have not seen a single film this man has directed. Right now you're either you're rolling your eyes in disbelief at how I could have not seen any films from the legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodovar or you're thinking, "Me neither. Never heard of the guy." If it's the latter that's proof that EW just did this as an attempt to add "prestige" to their list and include a foreign filmmaker. I hope not because I've heard nothing but great things about his work. It would be a shame if he was included for the wrong reasons.

23. Paul Greengrass- Having shamefully still not seen any of the Bourne films I'm not the best person to be judging the merits of his inclusion on this list or his placement. But that should hardly matter to EW who I'm sure gave him the spot primarily on the basis of the amount of dough that franchise raked in.

22. Paul Thomas Anderson- Upon seeing the title "Top Active Directors," a couple of images raced through my mind. The first was of Rollergirl. The next was of womanizer Frank Mackey reduced to tears at his dying father's bedside. The last was of Daniel Plainview, drilling into an ocean of oil, his hand emerging from below covered in black. I prefer Fincher slightly for the top spot but it's VERY, VERY close and I wouldn't dare argue with anyone who would rank PTA number one. But they ranked him at... 22? Really? This guy wrangled an Oscar-worthy performance out of Adam Sandler for crying out loud. That has to count for something.

21. Ang Lee- No arguments here, especially in this slot. What I didn't realize until recently was that he hasn't really directed that many films despite being known to American audiences for over a decade now. Regardless, The Ice Storm is one of the '90's greatest and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain proved that accomplishment wasn't a fluke. His Hulk joins Michael Mann's Miami Vice as one of the decade's most intriguing and creatively ambitious commercial failures. It doesn't hurt his standing with me in the slightest.

20. Ron Howard- This is a tough one. As a director he really never doesn't do anything special but he's one of the most consistent on here, with only a few occasional missteps (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, EDtv and from what I've heard the recent Angels & Demons). Sorry, but I loved Willow. When he's on he's really on (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, Parenthood) but too much of his work falls into the middling mainstream category. Most of the directors on here (even those I don't care for) have at least one film that can be considered an Earth-shattering accomplishment. He doesn't and nothing really sets him apart from the pack and I still say his most impressive achievement will always be as as co-creator/producer/narrator of Arrested Development. Nothing he's done in the film world even comes close and that's a testament to the show, not a swipe at his directorial career. 20 is a fair ranking.

19. Clint Eastwood- This is disgusting and I'm not even a huge fan. If this list meant anything at all, diehard devotees of his work (of which there are plenty) would be up in arms at this lowly ranking of 19. Not only at age 79 does he boast one of the most impressive, expansive filmographies of anyone on here (Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter, A Perfect World, In the Line of Fire, Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) but he exemplifies the word "active" having made two important cinematic contributions in the past year (Gran Torino, Changeling) with another one already in the can. What were they thinking?

18. Danny Boyle- I'll give credit to them for at least showing restraint with this somewhat plausible #18 ranking for him. Looked at from afar his entire filmography is a mixed bag (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach) with some gems thrown in (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). For shame, I still haven't seen Sunshine. Slumdog Millionaire is by far his pinnacle, but unlike Nolan with The Dark Knight, Boyle wouldn't have made this list without his 2008 entry. But he did, and EW didn't really overrate him, which was nice.

17. Darren Aronofsky-Despicable ranking. An atrocity he isn't AT LEAST in the top 10. If looking at the names of some of the filmmakers ranked ahead of him doesn't make you throw up in your mouth a little I don't know what will. But what's so scary about my surprisingly adverse reaction to his placement is that like a few other directors on here I've discounted, he's only made three films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler). That means those three films were more memorable and powerful than many other filmmakers' entire output that's spanned decades. And I don't even LOVE those three movies. But they're distinct and were made by someone with considerably more vision than most on this list. Snubbed by the Academy also, Aronofsky just can't ever seem to catch a break.

16. Zack Snyder- Ha Ha. Obviously, having only directed three films thus far he's done nothing to earn a spot on this list but in his defense I don't think he in any way deserves to be thought of as a hack or mentioned in the same breath as a Michael Bay or a McG, as many have unfairly been doing. His worst film (300) was an emotionally empty, visually dazzling exercise, but even that misfire wasn't exactly forgettable. As Watchmen proved, he obviously has talent and could eventually work his way on to the list, as unlikely as it seems. The editors at EW are idiots for putting him on it now.

15. Sam Raimi- The sell-out of all-time. Awful choice. Probably my least favorite director on here. If he had just retired after the Evil Dead films then maybe they could have made a case for his inclusion. Maybe. But he went on to helm the Spider-Man franchise and ruin the once promising careers of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Recently tried to regain some cred by going horror again with Drag Me to Hell which I have no interest in ever seeing since there's nothing unique about his filmmaking style. Now he's threatening to give us Spider-Man 4. Make it stop. He's ranked at 15 but any number would be too high for me. The anti-Nolan.

14. Judd Apatow- If this were a list of the most influential people in the movie industry today or a list of the most important writers or producers Apatow would be ranked #1 hands down. How he's changed the face of comedy over the past few years can't be undersold and he's one of the few on on here who have real substantial achievements to brag about. But unfortunately, this is a list of the best active DIRECTORS. He's only helmed three films, with his latest, the dramedy epic Funny People just hitting screens now to surprisingly lukewarm notices. Based on his output so far you'd fare better arguing he isn't a great director than he is, with sometimes shaky control over tone and an aversion to the editing room. And even those who think he's a master behind the camera would still have to admit he's a far better writer. But I still understand how they couldn't avoid the temptation to include him. His contributions to comedy so far are immeasurable...just not as a director.

13. Tim Burton- Ask anyone and they'll probably tell you their favorite Burton film is Edward Scissorhands. Good answer, considering he's devoted his entire career to remaking it over and over again (Batman, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd) without stepping out of his comfort zone once. And that's my main problem with him. He's one of a kind but is unable to stretch or trying anything different, or at least hasn't proven yet that he can.

Every film he's made looks exactly the same and plays in exactly the same dark, gothic style featuring a bizarre, misfit protagonist (usually played by the similarly overrated Johnny Depp). The only time he strayed slightly (VERY slightly) from that was with Big Fish. He also has some real junk on his resume, like Sleepy Hollow and that ill-conceived Planet of the Apes remake. Alice in Wonderland just looks like more of the same from him. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

12. David Fincher- You think The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had anything to do with this disrespectful ranking? If so, that's good for a laugh because Fincher's supposedly "weakest" work is leagues better than so-called masterpieces directed by EW's filmmaking legends class here. I'd say Panic Room is his weakest and even that's still better than most of these directors' best. The most talented filmmaker working today and my choice for #1.

11. Guillermo del Toro- Mixed feelings. On one hand it's impossible to argue against the technical prowess of someone who brought us Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy films. On the other, that's really all he's brought us so far and while he's been working since the early 90's he's only just hit his stride now. Most everything else is forgettable (Blade 2) or just unimportant (Mimic). Ranked a little high but with a couple of more films under his belt he'll likely earn this spot sooner than later.

10. Joel and Ethan Coen- A no-brainer. Not even EW couldn't screw this up. A perfect example of filmmakers with their own distinctive storytelling style and unlike some other picks on here their best days don't seem to be behind them. Some of their more recent efforts (No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading) beyond being quite great can stand side by side with the classics (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona) without embarrassment. Most importantly, they're always challenging themselves and going in new directions. No personal favorites of mine but credit where credit is due.

9. James Cameron- Um... I thought we said "ACTIVE." Cameron hasn't made a film in over a decade. I'm all for quantity over quality but let's not get carried away here. He doesn't deserve to be anywhere near this list. And am I the only person not at all looking forward to Avatar?

8. Michael Mann- I really like this pick. It just feels right. "Feels" is actually a great word to use because all of his films have a visually distinct one that only he seems to be able to pull off. I can't name a single one of his films that would rank among my favorites but you have to respect what he brings to the table. Actually could stand to work more but I'll take quality (Heat, Ali, The Insider, Collateral) over quantity any day of the week. Say what you want about Miami Vice (and believe me I have) but it was one of the best SHOT movies of the past 5 years. And it took guts and a lot of artistic ambition for him to do that to his own television series whether you agree with it or not. It's the kind of brave flop other directors on here wish they had the talent to have made. Public Enemies may have hurt his standing in the public's eyes but I haven't seen it yet so can't comment.

7. Quentin Tarantino- He's representative of the kind of choice that makes sense not necessarily because he has the strongest resume on here (far from it), but because even his lesser films contribute something important to the overall body of work. Jackie Brown, Death Proof, and Kill Bill definitely aren't for everyone but no other director on this list could have made them. And this coming from someone who's far from a Tarantino fanboy and thinks he believes his own hype way too often. When you're watching a movie directed by Tarantino YOU JUST KNOW he directed it. The man knows how to tell a story with the camera almost as well as he can with words. That's often overlooked. Great choice.

6. Ridley Scott- I've actually enjoyed most of his films (save for the recent Body of Lies) but nothing he does ever strikes me as truly unique, nor do I feel he has a distinctive voice that greatly differs from other filmmakers, especially in the action genre. An impressive craftsman without a doubt (Alien, Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down are nothing to sneeze at) but worthy of being named one of the top ten working directors today? Probably not. Check out Gladiator if you don't believe me. A strong film, but completely pedestrian.

5. Steven Soderbergh- Interesting selection but I don't agree with it and especially not at #5. After a promising early career he went on autopilot and started turning out safe, unchallenging mainstream fare like Erin Brockovich while occasionally throwing in arty, experimental efforts (Full Frontal, Bubble and the recent The Girlfriend Experience) that yielded mixed results. But what ultimately keeps him off for me are those Ocean's films. Hollywood superficiality at its peak. Takes risks, but not as often as he should. The filmography might be there but the quality isn't. Ranked a bit too high.

4. Christopher Nolan-
I don't have a big problem with this. Sure, #4 may seem a little high but that's only because the rest of the rankings are so screwed up. And as a "of the moment" pick it has a lot more credibility than, say, Danny Boyle. His previous work (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins and The Prestige), while not perfect, support the kind of singular vision that deserves top notch placement on a list like this. That vision was realized in The Dark Knight, making those aforementioned films look even better in hindsight.

3. Martin Scorsese- While not one of my personal favorites, even I can recognize when I don't have a leg to stand on in an argument. I have no case here that he's overranked. One of the all-time greats whose recent work (i.e. The Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) can stand its ground.

2. Peter Jackson- I shouldn't even be commenting on this since I haven't seen any of The Lord of the Rings films, but what else has he done that warrants a spot this high? You raked in a lot of cash-congrats. Just based on his placement it seems like another crowd pleasing, monetarily motivated pick from EW.

1. Steven Spielberg- I knew they'd do this and I take issue with it not because I dislike Spielberg or his films (how can anyone?) but because the reasoning behind the selection is so dubious when you consider his underwhelming output this past decade. Two words: CRYSTAL SKULL. He needs to get back on the map quickly if he wants to re-claim his throne. And it's a good thing we're judging his work as a director not a producer (Eagle Eye, the Transformers films) or he'd deserve to fall off the list completely. The word "active" does him no favors in evaluating the merits of his #1 ranking. That said, I can't argue he doesn't at least still deserve be in the top 5 or 10.

Didn't Make it and I'm Glad

Spike Lee- The most overrated filmmaker alive. I'm sure many were up in arms when they didn't see his name, feeling this exclusion symbolizes the list's inaccuracy, but I felt like clapping. His films range from preposterously overrated (Do The Right Thing, Inside Man, and just about everything else) to flat-out awful (the recent Miracle at St. Anna). But at least there's one other person as thrilled as I am that he didn't make the list: Spike Lee. Now he has a new excuse to cry racism and blame Clint Eastwood for all his problems. The fact is his films just aren't that great. Yes, of course he's a lot better than some of the choices up there, but just because they didn't deserve to make it doesn't mean he should.

Woody Allen- As much as it pains me to say it, you'd have to go back to the 70's or early '80's to make a strong argument he deserves a place alongside the best active directors, if only because he's been so wildly inconsistent since then. Unlike Lee however, I'm actually a fan of his work and find even his lesser efforts to at least be interesting. It seems we just keep waiting and waiting for the next truly great Woody Allen picture to come along and it never does. It's getting frustrating. For every movie that flirts with greatness (Match Point) there are a dozen others that don't (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Celebrity, Scoop, the list goes on and on). The output is just too uneven to warrant inclusion. A good call by EW.

Should Have Made It (these names jump out at me as outrageous omissions but there are probably more)
Wes Anderson
David Lynch
David Cronenberg
Richard Kelly
Lars Von Trier
Sam Mendes
David Gordon Green
Oliver Stone
Spike Jonze
Gus Van Sant


JD said...

Active is an odd word choice. Pedro deserves to be on there for sure. We talked abut this MGU a couple weeks ago. It doesn't make any sense if you really think about it.
Great analysis.

Anonymous said...

I think you're on crack. Why does David Lynch deserve to be on the list but not Woody Allen? Match Point was brilliant, Vicky was great, Anything Else was *great* and very underrated, and a lot of his 90's works were great as well -- Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry, Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets Over Broadway, Husbands and Wives. I think Woody has made more great films than anyone in that list.