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Top Ten Directors – Part One

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.

To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?



As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.

Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.


E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.


Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.

The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.

I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.


Why do I like “Avatar”?

Protesters dressed as characters from the movie Avatar marchs in the West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah
First of all, I don’t “like” Avatar.  I LOVE Avatar.  Why?  Simple: it’s awesome!  But that’s hardly an academic response.  I mean awesome in a serious manner though – it genuinely fills me with awe, as a cinematic spectacle and more besides.  To me, creating spectacle is one of the core purposes of cinema, and if a film does that, it is doing something very right indeed.  Spectacle is more than image and sound, it needs to be an emotional spectacle as well, and Avatar conveys emotion in Titanothere-sized spades (yes, I know the names of Pandoran creatures).  The technical skill of Cameron and his collaborators is key here – the constantly roving camera places me in Jake Sully’s position and I feel the visceral thrill that he gets from experiencing his new body and a whole new world, a metaphor for the re-invigoration of the experience of cinema that Avatar sets out to do and, at least for me, succeeds.

As a piece of entertainment, Avatar is probably the greatest cinematic thrill I have ever had.  Other films that created similar experiences would be The Matrix, for much the same reasons, all three of Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and Ang Lee’s Hulk.  These express the pure, raw, undiluted, visceral experiential thrill of cinema, which is one of the fundamental reasons I adore this art form over all others – when done properly, cinema can transport you.  Indeed, transportation is important, particularly in science fiction in which world-building is key.  In a recent poll of Greatest Science Fiction Films of All Time, I voted for Avatar because, more than any other sci-fi film, I felt it took me to another world (the poll was won, unsurprisingly, by Blade Runner).  It was a world I could feel, believe in and care about, which is key to the film’s environmental ideology.  To quote Carol Kaesuk Yoon of the New York Times, Avatar “has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world” [Kaesuk Yoon, Carol (January 19, 2010). “Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist’s Dream”. The New York Times: p. D-1].

In addition to a visceral thrill, I genuinely find watching Avatar to be a spiritual experience, which is rare for me.  I would identify my top five films of all time as emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences, the others being Titanic, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, and Heat.  These films touch me on multiple levels, and when I encounter disparaging responses, I am both aggrieved and saddened that others do not share the positive experience that I have: “It’s fantastic, I want you to feel fantastic as well, you don’t, you’re being mean, stop it, etc”.  It’s not that I’m right and you’re wrong (although…), it is that I want more people to be happy.

I think a key reason I don’t understand the problems that some other people have with the film, and even find the criticisms offensive, is that plot, characters and dialogue are not major concerns for me.  I understand that the plot is prosaic and can be seen as “baggy” or “clunky”, but that is not a problem for me.  Indeed, the extended version works better for me because there is so much more of Pandora, its flora and fauna, as well as the culture of the Na’Vi to enjoy.  One of the key pleasures of re-watching films for me is the accumulation of detail, and the visual detail and attention to detail is a marvelous creation that I revel in.  Is Avatar‘s plot formulaic and predictable? Yes, and I have absolutely no problem with that. And as we know, familiarity is a key ingredient in popular story-telling.

I honestly do not have any problem with the supposed “bad” dialogue in this film, nor Titanic or John Carter that are also berated for their dialogue. What makes dialogue by James Cameron “bad” and that of David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino (or indeed Michael Mann) “good”? The standards to which dialogue “should” be held have never been made clear to me, it seems like some piece of cultural knowledge I never acquired.

As for the characters, they are means to an end – what matters to me is what is going on and who it is happening to is largely unimportant, especially because I feel involved.  Rather than being distanced from the film by grumbling over the lack of characterisation in Jake Sully (which I do not deny), I find myself within the experience and concerned with what will happen next and, indeed, what I would do.  This is immersion (in however many dimensions), which film, at its best, can accomplish.  I understand and share the pleasure of in-depth characterisation, but I do not see it as a requirement for high quality – they are one method of textual pleasure, much like 3D, special effects, music, shaky cam, cuts or fades, etc.  In the case of Avatar, I also think there is something very deliberate and effective in making the characters archetypes, as I believe the film creates a contemporary myth and mythic characters work best as archetypes.  Indeed, the character of Jake Sully is himself an avatar for the contemporary audience that are disengaged from the world and must learn to re-connect.  This is the spiritual aspect of the film that is so easily missed – the film does not preach for a return to the woods and nature, it is entirely metaphorical and urging people to reconnect with our world, through a re-invigoration of cinema.  There isn’t a lot of characterisation because it would be completely unnecessary and indeed a hindrance to the myth/metaphor.

Furthermore, while I can understand that many find Avatar preachy and didactic, I have no problem being lectured on an issue I absolutely agree with and believe should be expounded, the issue of conservation and anti-environmental exploitation. I also loathe cynicism, so the cynical response that somehow Avatar’s message is invalidated by it being a hugely successful commercial product raises my hackles. This position has no evidence, it appears to be no more than an assumption, and that arrogance bothers me as well.  Indeed, research has shown that some reacted very positively to the film, reducing their carbon footprint and attempting a re-engagement with their environment.  Good for them.  And others would rather refuse to accept that a piece of wildly successful commercial entertainment could have a socially positive, therapeutic effect.  What does it take for these people?

As for the accusations of racism, I find them problematic when they come exclusively from middle-class (predominantly white) academics.  If indigenous people were shown the film and found it offensive, I’d credit that, but instead, people of the Amazon, Iraqis and Palestinians as well as environmentalists have spoken of their identification with the Na’Vi, which appears to contradict the critical/academic response.  It’s fine to be offended on behalf of others, indeed that is a crucial aspect of social justice, but if those for whom you are offended are not, does it not make sense to support their position?  The presentation of the Na’Vi is idealised, which is perhaps a stereotypical view of indigenous peoples, but when the presentation is positive, and detailed, and not simply explained away in terms of their beliefs just being their beliefs but demonstrated as something tangible and, for lack of a better term, real, that hardly seems racist: “It’s not racist to try to save humankind by targeting your efforts directly on transformation of the consciousness and practices of those currently doing most of the destroying” (Rupert Read, “Avatar: A call to save the future”, Radical Anthropology).

Academia has an unfortunate tendency towards cynicism and not accepting potentially positive suggestions, seeming instead desirous of vague criticisms about the status quo.  An interesting comparison is Fight Club, that is a direct assault on consumerism through an aggressive narrative and visual style.  Fight Club was a box office flop that became a cult favourite – Avatar reached a far wider audience and has sparked constructive political activism.  This, surely, is something to be applauded.