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Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

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From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

Michael-Mann

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The BFG

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Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg are significant parts of many childhoods. Both artists use an exquisite method of storytelling that captures that most elusive of elements – true wonder. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that Spielberg has not directed an adaptation of a Dahl novel until now, but it was the worth the wait as The BFG delivers exactly what could be expected of this dream combination. From the lovingly crafted streets of London to the intricate maze of the Big Friendly Giant’s (Mark Rylance) home and workshop, Spielberg and production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg place the viewer in the position of the enchanting Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) as she learns about giants, Giant Country and dreams. DOP Janusz Kaminsky lenses the film in soft hues, while capturing two bravura sequences in single shots. These set pieces convey wonder and thrills both as spectacle and experience, while screenwriter Melissa Mathison imbues the Buckingham Palace sequences with Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) with laugh out loud comedy moments. Performance capture and digital effects bring the BFG to startling life, Rylance’s performance one of charming innocence which rivals that of Sophie. This guileless innocence and childlike charm are the greatest strengths of the film, even if at times it is thematically insubstantial. Reminiscent in its finest moments of Spielberg and Mathison’s precious collaboration, E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The BFG confirms Spielberg’s place as Hollywood’s enduring crafter of cinematic dreams, and the timelessness of Dahl’s beautiful storytelling.

88th Annual Academy Award Predictions

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It’s been a road of some indeterminate length, and I’ve given my views on some of the categories. But at long(ish) last, here are my picks for the 88th Annual Academy Awards. As before, these are both what I believe will win, and what I would vote for were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which is not the same as “should win” – I’m not that arrogant).

Disclaimer: I may change some of these after I see Brooklyn. Also, I am changing my Supporting Actress prediction, so don’t bother pointing it out.

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The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Room

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Director

Lenny Abrahamson – Room

Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant

Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Adam McKay – The Big Short

George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road

Predicted winner – Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant

My preference – Lenny Abrahamson – Room

Actor 

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo

Matt Damon – The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

Predicted winner – Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

My preference – Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs

 

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Actress 

Cate Blanchett – Carol

Brie Larson – Room

Jennifer Lawrence – Joy

Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Predicted winner – Brie Larson – Room

My preference – Brie Larson – Room

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Supporting Actor

Christian Bale – The Big Short

Tom Hardy – The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone – Creed

Predicted winner – Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

My preference – Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

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Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara – Carol

Rachel McAdams – Spotlight

Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl 

Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Predicted winner – Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl 

My preference – Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

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Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short

Brooklyn

Carol

The Martian

Room 

Predicted winner – The Big Short

My preference – Room

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Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out

Spotlight

Straight Outta Compton

Predicted winner – Spotlight

My preference – Spotlight

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Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Sicario

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Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Cinderella

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Editing 

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Spotlight

 

Make-Up and Hair

Mad Max: Fury Road

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The Revenant

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – The Revenant

 

Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – The Hateful Eight

My preference – Carol

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Original Song

Earned It, The Weeknd – Fifty Shades of Grey

Manta Ray, J Ralph & Antony – Racing Extinction

Simple Song #3, Sumi Jo – Youth

Til It Happens To You, Lady Gaga – The Hunting Ground

Writing’s On the Wall, Sam Smith – Spectre

Predicted winner – Til It Happens To You, Lady Gaga – The Hunting Ground

My preference – Writing’s On the Wall, Sam Smith – Spectre

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Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – The Revenant

 

Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Sicario

 

Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My preference – Ex Machina

TFA

Animated Film

Anomalisa

Boy and the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

Predicted winner – Inside Out

My preference – Inside Out

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Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent – Colombia

Mustang – France

Son of Saul – Hungary

Theeb – Jordan

A War – Denmark

Predicted winner – Theeb (complete guess and as I have not seen any, I have no preference.)

 

Documentary Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Predicted winner – The Look of Silence (complete guess and as I have not seen any, I have no preference.)

 

Animated and Live Action Shorts – I have no knowledge of these so no predictions or preferences.

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Bridge of Spies

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The Cold War. A time of intrigue, second-guessing, secrets and absurdity, at least according to Steven Spielberg’s blend of spy thriller, legal drama and dark humour. Screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen along with Matt Charman integrate this humour with well-rounded characters, as lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) defends accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against not only legal prosecution but also the court of public opinion that is out for blood rather than justice. The film is both absorbing as a period piece and resonates with contemporary events, as it highlights the attitude towards perceived enemy aliens and the conflict between the rule of law and national security. As Donovan moves on to negotiate a prisoner exchange in East Berlin, Cold War antagonisms rise in a number of tense set pieces, yet the nationalism of the USA, the USSR and the GDR (acronyms are important, characters remind us) are largely ridiculed, exposing the absurdity of such ideologies. Bewildered yet determined in the face of these conflicting and confusing demands, Donovan remains a compelling anchor, the viewer subjected to his steady education in this strange and confusing world of espionage and expediency. To its great credit, Bridge of Spies avoids simplistic flag waving: the relative freedom of the West here is not something guaranteed by sentiment or belief, but contingent upon an adherence to the law and equality under it. Bridge of Spies therefore develops themes from Lincoln, demonstrating once again Spielberg’s skill at using historical settings to comment upon the current state of the world.

Jurassic World

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Nostalgia is a funny thing. Sometimes it makes something sweeter; other times it feels tired and worn. For cinemagoers of a certain age, Jurassic Park was a landmark moment in 1993, with the most convincing and compelling dinosaurs ever seen on screen. Over time, such monstrous spectacles have become commonplace, yet the sense of wonder and awe at Steven Spielberg’s classic remains strong and prevalent.

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Jurassic World clearly acknowledges the audience’s familiarity with spectacular beasts, and the titular theme park’s need to up its product resonates with modern blockbusters’ need to deliver bigger and better. Along the way, director Colin Trevorrow continually tips his hat to the original, with frequent interludes of John Williams’ iconic theme, visual quotes such as close-ups of dinosaur eyes and old favourites including the tyrannosaur, velociraptors and even the dilophosaur and Mr. DNA. This nostalgia permeates the film, regularly reminding the viewer how much they enjoyed Jurassic Park.

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The problem is that Jurassic World fails to convince in its own right. The plotting is sloppy, the set pieces functional and the characters disparate. Chris Pratt is an engaging hero while Bryce Dallas Howard has a half-decent arc, the two kids are not irritating and the dinosaurs are well rendered. But Trevorrow fails to bring any distinctiveness or panache to the visual palette, resulting in a ride that has too few jumps and shocks and no central thrust to pull the viewer along. It is a far sight better than the dino-sized doo-doo that was The Lost World, but lacks even the pace and wit of Jurassic Park III. Fun though it is to see dinosaurs because, well, dinosaurs, perhaps it is time for this franchise to go extinct.

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To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 5

Close Encounters poster

The first time I saw this film was on television one Saturday afternoon, and it was one of my earliest realisations of the sheer wonder of film. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a remarkable play of light and sound (which is the fundamental action of cinema – no nonsense about characters you have to care about, that comes later), a visual and aural display that takes the viewer on the same journey as the protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus). Roy’s abandonment of his family is problematic (Steven Spielberg has said in interviews that were he to make the film since becoming a parent, he would make different choices), but the infantalising journey of wonder that Roy goes on is still alluring and transporting. Roy, along with the young boy Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey), follows the lights not towards death but towards rebirth; the term mothership has rarely been used so aptly. Even if the viewer baulks at the journey of Roy himself, there are also the military and scientific spectators at Devil’s Tower, who are treated to an extraordinary display of light and sound, including the famous five tone theme. These spectators are similar to those of a cinema audience, also assembled for the dazzling display of the film itself, making Close Encounters of the Third Kind a meta-cinematic experience. Just as characters within the film make a pilgrimage to the mountain, audiences flocked to cinemas for the release of this film and continue to do so for other journeys into the imagination. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is at times the purest form of cinema – a transportive experience through the play of light and sound towards the infinite. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) tells Roy that he envies him for the journey he is taking. The journey of the film, and of sci-fi cinema as a whole, expresses this journey and, at its best, gives us a sense of what that journey might be like.

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Interstellar

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Interstellar is many things. It is a descendant of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the direct descendant of Contact (1997), midwifed by Avatar (2009) and Gravity (2013). It is the most ambitious film of Christopher Nolan’s career, incorporating theories of wormholes, time and gravity into a story of space travel in the midst of environmental devastation that, perhaps appropriately for a film with apparent familial connections, explores themes of family, hope and love. It is a near-three hour spectacle of epic proportions that delivers awe-inspiring visuals as well as exquisite detail in the production design. It utilises Nolan’s trademark crosscutting techniques to tie together sequences for greater impact. It centres on a father-daughter relationship, beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy (later Jessica Chastain) along with a cast that includes Nolan alumni Michael Caine (obviously) and Anne Hathaway, along with Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley and Ellen Burstyn. It is a eulogy for NASA and a lament for the abandonment of space travel and all that represents for human endeavour and ingenuity. And it is an attempt to blend hard science (both fact and fiction) with an emotional story of broken families.

Cooper Murph

At times, Interstellar achieves the heights of its ambition, utilising its extraordinary scale to move its audience both emotionally and intellectually. At other times, the balance between science and sentimentality is lost and some scenes feel awkward. Explaining love as a dimension within the universe is ultimately unconvincing because love is at its most dramatic when it is not quantified. Love is the ultimate mystery that is most dramatic when left unexplained, and Interstellar’s attempts to incorporate love into scientific calculations do not work.

Perhaps ironically, Interstellar’s greatest weakness may be its insistence upon science, in the sense that everything is observable and quantifiable. A great strength of Nolan’s previous work is ambiguity. How much of Memento can be trusted? Who did what in The Prestige? Was everything justifiable in The Dark Knight? How much of Inception was a dream? Ambiguity is also used to great effect in Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey – in neither film is it entirely clear what happened. Mysteries abound in Interstellar, but they are ultimately explained and, while the explanations are consistent within the logic of the film, they are also very pat: Eureka moments with the mathematical formula laid out in painstaking detail, which reduces the dramatic impact of key moments.

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That said, while Interstellar overplays its (pseudo)science, it succeeds both as a visual and an emotional spectacle. The vastness of space is beautiful and awe-inspiring, as are the landscapes of Earth and other planets. The eponymous interstellar travel is breathtaking and humbling, while Nolan provides a number of action set pieces that rival the tension of zero-gravity combat of Inception and the impact of the street battle in The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the sentimentality of the father-daughter relationship is played with Spielbergian conviction, as recorded messages express loss and longing across separations of both long years and immense distances. The climax is an extraordinary special effects sequence of dazzling technical virtuosity, yet this sequence is sustained by a moving and affecting display of love. Interstellar may fail to explain love, but it does succeed at portraying love.

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Ostensibly the film is about abandoning Earth and seeking a future on other planets. But as with any film, the events are open to interpretation. As with Nolan’s previous films, grieving and loss are major themes, and Interstellar suggests that part of loss is what we leave for our children, the importance of the future we create for them. Time is a variable within the calculations of Professor Brand (Caine) and the adult Murph (Chastain), but it is also a philosophical consideration for the film as a whole. What do we do with time? How can we maximise its utilisation and its availability for others? Do some people warrant more time than others and a species warrant more than individuals? Interstellar expresses a fundamental aspect of cinema: the capture and manipulation of time. Nolan’s work is often meta-cinematic, and just as a filmmaker rearranges time, temporal calculation and manipulation is intrinsic to the story, emphasising the importance of time and our use of it. Furthermore, the film undertakes that most fundamental task of cinema, especially science fiction – to transport its audience. Watching the film, I both felt myself transported beyond Earth and to a new perspective on time, all based upon concepts of love and hope. Interstellar is a flawed film, but it is an undeniably affecting and moving experience.

Interstellar poster