Mike’s Favorite Directorial Efforts of the Decade (70-61)

I make ‘favorite performance’ lists every year, and I get that these lists, more than the rest, are the most subjective one can make. Because it’s really about what you see in each performance and what you respond to; There’s no objective way to truly rate a performance as better than another. With whole films, it feels easier to make that distinction. So with these lists, I’m just gonna focus on some performances from the decade that I really, really enjoyed, and the goal here is just to shout them out and maybe get some people to watch the films if they hadn’t or reevaluate each of the performances the next time they watch the films.

These are my favorite directorial efforts of the decade:

70. Tom Hooper, Les Misérables

I love this movie. I find myself wanting to go back and watch this movie constantly. Now sure, some of that (a lot of that) is the fact that it’s probably one of the five best musicals ever written. Top to bottom amazing songs, and the plot is one of the best novels ever written. So I get it. This and West Side Story are two that I can just listen to all the time. But I also love how Hooper chose to make the film. It’s epic. The scope and size of it is quite big. The movie and framing feel big, even as he gets very intimate with some of the numbers. The choice to do live singing and single takes on some of the numbers really pays off, because you really never saw that in musicals before. Some musicals did live singing before, and others had emotional numbers, but here you really see the acting, first and foremost. And a lot of that is because the musical is sung-through, with no straight dialogue in it. So the performances have to be given through song. But you really don’t see the caliber of performance in other musicals that you do here. And a lot of that is owed to Hooper. I’ve never seen the show on a stage, so I don’t know how much was cut out in the interim, but if I were gonna say anything about the film, it’s that I could have used more. A bit more on the Valjean story and a bit more on the barricade story. Which is really only saying that I liked it so much I wish it were longer. And also, anyone who wants to quibble with the film, consider this — how’s it looking now that Cats was made?

69. Sam Mendes, Skyfall

Okay, part of me wants to say that some of this praise has to go to Roger Deakins (and you know there’s gonna be another one like that also on this list). He shot the shit out of this movie, and it looks stunning. It’s probably the best looking Bond movie ever made. It’s just gorgeously lit and staged. But honestly, Mendes pulled it all together. The Bond franchise is one that, in a way, largely directs itself. I know Mendes didn’t really direct the second unit action stuff, and I know that, 50+ years in, there are a lot of tropes and scenes and things that basically map out the story for you. But Mendes had to keep it all together. Bond movies generally have a high floor, but it takes a special effort to get the ceiling as high as it is on the good ones. Most Bond movies are in the ‘good’ range, but only a handful (and even fewer non-Connery ones) rise to the status of ‘best of the franchise’. Craig already had one with Casino Royale, but this instantly shot right up there alongside it. And you can’t discount the hand that Mendes had to play in that.

68. J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year

All Is Lost is the showier piece of direction, but to me, this is the better of the two. I love how Chandor handled this one. It’s set in 1980s New York, and he doesn’t throw it in your face. It’s just there. And it’s a character in the film, but it never — okay, it’s not American Hustle. American Hustle feels like it’s saying, “Look, we’re in the 70s!!!” This is just there. The dirt and grime and growing unsettledness of a city on the brink of violence is all there, hanging over this film. And you just watch it all come to a boil in the story of this one man. It’s an incredible film that really ought to get its proper due one of these years.

67. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

With Quentin, most of the work is done in the writing. And a lot in the casting. He gets the right actors and just lets them go and doesn’t really have to do much in the way of direction. But if there’s one thing I can say about him as a director, it’s that there’s always a bunch of cool shots or moments or camera movements or something in his film that everyone remembers. He’s not the flashiest director ever, and in a lot of ways, unless he’s specifically paying homage to something, most of the time he does tend to keep his camera from getting in the way of his words. But that’s part of his strength as a director. He knows when to not go overboard. I like the job he did here.

66. Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049

We have to start by getting the obvious out of the way — I’m not the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner. It’s a great film and a rightful classic and all that. But I just have issues with it that lead to me not exalting it the way others do. I’ll tell you it’s great, but I won’t get animated when I talk about it the way I will with other movies. So when they announced that Denis Villeneuve was doing this, I was disappointed/concerned. He had such a great run of movies — Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival — and now he was doing this. And I knew he was a great enough director to elevate it and make it watchable, but I was worried that it wasn’t gonna be as great as those others and derail him from the cool, original path he was on. But man, was I wrong on this. I might even say I like this better than the original. Of course, this doesn’t work without the original, but man, do I love this movie. It looks stunning — and that’s Deakins again. What’s that, his third or fourth assist on this list so far? I think he has six total. Pretty great, considering he only has eleven films he shot this decade (twelve if you want to count his consulting on Rango). But anyway, I love how this is as epic as it should be, continues the world started in the first one without making it too oppressive. I like when films build out sci-fi worlds and make them seem commonplace rather than going, “Look at this! And look at this!” Here, there’s stuff in the background that never gets mentioned that you know they worked out what it is and what its function is in the world. Plus, he makes the story feel real. And emotional. I cared about the journey. And that’s the strength of Villeneuve as a director. He can handle both the visuals and the story element of a film. And I also feel like films like this — blockbuster sci-fi — they don’t tend to get shouted out for their direction. But honestly, give me this list again, he could potentially be 30 spots higher than this. That’s how good a job I think he did.

65. David Ayer, Fury

Badass war movie. David Ayer knows how to make a movie with dirty and grime. This movie is dirty (some of which was helped by Shia LaBeouf apparently not showering for the duration of the shoot). Sometimes war movies are too clean. They achieve too much. This is just a couple of guys in a tank fighting Germans. That’s it. It’s just badass. It’s Ayer’s best piece of directing so far, by far.

64. Joe Wright, Hanna

Joe Wright is underrated as a visualist and filmmaker. Everyone knows Atonement, but most other stuff people just kind of nod at and move along from. Anna Karenina, sure, it’s showy. But Darkest Hour is a really great piece of work and is more than just a ‘classical’ piece of filmmaking. This, though, is on another level for me. He brings a style to this that elevates what could just be a B movie into something truly great. Everyone (if you even saw this) remembers the oner fight in the train station. Sure. But I like the rest of it. I like how he handles the climax of the film (which by all accounts is based on a reshoot and wasn’t the planned ending of the film), and I like how he finds a way to simultaneously make Saoirse Ronan the most dangerous thing in the frame but also the most vulnerable thing in the frame. There’s a real delicate balance to how he shot this film, and I really don’t think Wright (or the film) has gotten the proper credit he deserves.

63. Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises

It’s Miyazaki. I shouldn’t have to say anything else. Every film he’s made is a masterpiece. They’re all stunning pieces of animation. This was meant to be his final film (but that appears to not be the case). If it was, it would have been an amazing note to go out on. Even so, it’s yet another in a long line of brilliant films for him.

62. David O. Russell, The Fighter

David O. Russell saved his career with this film. This is — and please don’t take this comparison out of context — his Raging Bull. What Raging Bull was to Martin Scorsese’s career, this is to David O. Russell’s. He had an unmitigated disaster with Nailed, and during all that fiasco also had those leaked Huckabees set videos come out. It was a bad time for him. And then he came back with this, which was just a shot in the arm. There was life here. Energy. You felt like he put it all into this movie and reinvented himself. It’s an energy he’d carry over into his next three films (one of which no one saw, admittedly, but everyone saw the first two). He focuses on the characters and the family aspect of the film more than the boxing. The boxing feels almost ancillary to the rest of the movie. It’s almost perfunctory when they get into the ring. But he also finds an interesting way to shoot the boxing scenes, which is an increasingly tough thing to do. If you go into the ring, you’re doing Scorsese (even though he took a cue from Body and Soul for those). If you do something else, it’s Rocky. Here, he just straight up uses fight cameras and makes it look like you’re watching it on tape on ESPN or Pay Per View. Which is quite the choice. It’s an interesting mix, watching it from that audience angle while also having the ‘cinematic’ moments where the family stuff bleeds into it. But mostly, what I like about the film is that you can just feel the energy and the effort that went into making it, and that more than anything can help an effort go from good to great.

61. James Mangold, Logan

James Mangold might be the underrated great filmmaker out there. There’s a handful of directors who are constantly doing great work and making great movies yet never really get called out for their fantastic helming of them. Mangold hasn’t really ever made a bad film. They’re all interesting and well done, and the worst you can say about one of them is that you didn’t like it. No one will ever call his films bad. He’s made four films this decade. Two are in this list. The other two are The Wolverine, which — consider how the first one, Origins, turned out, and realize that he literally pulled that sub-franchise out of the grave and gave it life again and made it so this one could happen. And the other is Knight and Day, a film I’m starting to like more and more as time goes on, as a playful subversion of the Cruise screen persona and a really fun rom com in its own right. Point is, he’s an amazing director. That said — this film. A lot of it works because we spent 17 years with Jackman as Logan and he was our through line to all X-Men movies. It’s him. It’s him as this character. No denying it. And here, they dispensed with all the mutant stuff, all the CGI, and just told a story about this guy. In a way, it’s more of a western than a superhero movie. And it’s just amazing. Jackman delivers what might be his finest screen performance and Mangold does what he always does, which is incredible (yet understated) direction. He’s one of those guys who prefers to keep himself out of the film. Some directors want you to know they’re behind the camera, others prefer to let the film do the talking. And he feels like the kind of no nonsense, ‘just do the work’ kind of guys that would have been incredible in the 70s, alongside people like Sidney Lumet. But anyway, this movie and this effort are amazing, and the only case that really needed to be made all along is — if you make a film that automatically becomes one of the two or three best superhero films ever made (and there is no way you’re convincing me this isn’t on a tier with Dark Knight above everything else, even what you consider the best superhero stuff ever made — your Iron Mans and whatever Avengers movies, or Spider-Man, any of that), you deserve a spot on the ‘best of the decade’ list.

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