Mike’s Favorite Directorial Efforts of the Decade (60-51)

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:

60. Sean Baker, Tangerine

He shot a movie entirely on an iPhone on real streets using non-actors, and the result is great. This movie had no reason to be good. I could do the same thing — any of us could do the same thing — and 9 times out of 10, the movie would barely be watchable and look like we shot it on an iPhone with no money in real locations. This is a movie that I would not have dreamed I’d enjoy, and I loved it. On pure effort alone, and what this effort means for all aspiring filmmakers, it deserves a spot on this list. You can’t tell the story of this decade in film without this movie. You just can’t.

59. Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

I love Spike. He goes through peaks and valleys, but when he hits the peaks, man are they great. He’s one of those guys who feels like he goes away for a while and then comes back with a great one, when in reality he’s always working. Sometimes the results are Red Hook Summer (ehh) or Oldboy (fine, but completely unnecessary) or Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (like the idea, but it didn’t work). Sometimes they’re Chi-Raq (great execution, unfortunately no one saw it). Other times, they’re this, when everything hits at the right moment in the right film, and the results are magical. This is the movie we needed in 2018. It not only tells a story that should be told, it has the perfect parallels to present day, it’s both perfectly dramatic and funny, and just really well made all around. Spike pulls out all these great tricks with the split screens and the unique camera angles — AND THERE’S A MUSICAL NUMBER. Not like, people singing, but everyone just dances. And it’s great. I love this movie, and this effort honestly could have been way higher if I made this list without knowing what I did this time.

58. Bennett Miller, Moneyball

Bennett Miller is becoming a king of understated, yet great direction. Three films to this point: Capote, this and Foxcatcher. And they’re all fantastic. What’s great about this movie in particular is that it’s about stats. Sure, it’s about people who do a thing with stats, but basically it’s more about stats and less about baseball. So the fact that it’s as great and as rewatchable as it is owes a lot to Miller’s direction. And yes, also Sorkin’s writing and Pitt’s acting, etc. But the direction is really great here, and one of the more underrated pieces of work the entire decade.

57. Rian Johnson, Knives Out

Isn’t it great when Rian Johnson shows us all how great he is when he makes his own movies? People got so stupidly upset about his Star Wars movie that they forgot that just before that, he made Looper. He’s not a flashy director — he doesn’t necessarily call attention to his shot choices (though he does so occasionally here. That moment where the camera goes handheld outside the house stands out), but he uses the camera to underscore his story and maximize effect. His shots don’t feel wasteful and they always seem to be revealing something new about the setting or the characters.

56. Jason Reitman, The Front Runner

This is Jason Reitman reminding us of how good he is. Up in the Air was the last major success he had. And those early films — he’s not one for showy direction. I read an interview with him where he said that he and his DP have a rule where if either is doing anything flashy, they come up to the other and give them shit for it. Basically to say, “Cut it out.” He’s very much one of those ‘invisible hand’ sort of guys. But here, he moves away from that method a bit, and he does so with great effect. His opening is a Robert Altman-type tracking shot that takes us through all the different characters in the film and introduces us to the different levels of story that all go on at once. The film is both about Gary Hart while also being about a moment that set the stage for what media coverage and the news cycle and political races (and even society, with stuff like the Me To movement and how women are treated in scandals like this and what happens to them afterward) would become, and over the course of the film, he visually underscores that, to the point where, near the end of the film, he gives you moments where you could be focusing on any one of these threads while it’s all happening at once. It’s a really strong piece of direction that unfortunately never properly got its due at the time.

55. Damien Chazelle, First Man

He got all the credit for Whiplash and La La Land, but none of the credit for this. This is a stunning piece of work. Space movies are hard to pull off. Because there are only so many ways you can shoot someone in a ship. You know? But here, he really manages to do something I’d never seen before, which is to focus on the amount of balls it takes to do this sort of thing, especially then. All the ships are these rickety metal tubes that are barely enough to keep people safe, and he focuses on the sound design and on Gosling’s face, basically showing you how insanely loud and unsettling this whole thing is, and making you, the audience, acutely aware that this dude is going thousands of miles per second and could blow up at any moment. And the camera is shaking, and sometimes you don’t really know what you’re looking at, but you feel it. And I’d never really seen a space movie that did that before. He also makes the great choice of going in tight on Gosling a bunch, focusing on his eyes, because Armstrong as a character is very stoic and doesn’t often let his emotions show. And the eyes are how he lets all that out, except for a few moments here and there. It’s a really strong piece of work that doesn’t seem like it’ll ever get the recognition of Chazelle’s first two films, but really ought to.

54. Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings

It’s the best thing Laika’s ever done to this point. I’d always respected their films because of their commitment to stop-motion and artistry in their films. You can always feel the care and effort that went into each and every one of them. But this one is just — you know it from the first moments, when they show the waves on the ocean. You just know it’s gonna be special. And every piece of this movie is absolutely stunning. Every set piece, every monster, it’s just perfect. And consider this a combination of my love for the film, my respect for the company, and an appreciation of the work that goes into making a film like this.

53. Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Put this movie in the hands of another director and it’s not the same film, and it’s probably not as good. There’s something about Denis Villeneuve as a director that gets the most out of a film. Both visually and emotionally. The story is there, but that could easily have all fallen apart. You could get to that third act revelation about Amy Adams and either think, “What the hell was that all about? That made no sense,” or, “That was not set up well at all.” Yet, the way Villeneuve handles it, you get it, you understand it, and the most you think is, “I need to see this again to track that.” A good director makes you want to see the film again, not question how it all went down. Plus, think about this — nothing really happens in this movie. It’s scientists going into a spaceship and talking to aliens through white boards. It’s a deceptively simple movie. There’s only one real ‘action’ scene in the film (and even that feels out of place as compared to the rest of it), and the ultimate ending isn’t something where people saved the world, it’s one where ultimately only one thing changes, and the notion is that eventually at some point in the future, it will help. But you don’t care, because the way the journey is structured, it all feels satisfying. I’m truly in awe of how Villeneuve is able to take what might otherwise be standard-fare product and turn it into some of the best films that come out in a given year/decade.

52. Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens always have great direction in their films. This one I feel is one of their most underrated (and maybe even best ever) films. Bruno Delbonnel (this is one of their few non-Deakins efforts) shoots the hell out of it, but I love how they turn it into this low key Greek tragedy of sorts. They create this beautiful loop of a man stuck in the same cycle of existence. Everything that happens feels like it’s happening for the first time yet also feels like it happens to this guy all the time. Which harkens back to one of the first lines of the film — ‘if it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’. And that they took that core theme of the film and used it in their direction is, to me, what makes it so special.

51. J.A. Bayona, The Impossible

That disaster sequence is one of the best I’ve ever seen put to film. I grew up with stuff like Twister, which was visually impressive but never really made me feel like I was there. This made me feel like I was experiencing a tsunami with these characters. Because there wasn’t a story to it. The movie stopped. You follow these people, and then this happens, and that’s what we’re dealing with for the time being. The story doesn’t resume until everything settles down. So for that period of time, that’s all you see. And then we go back to figuring out who’s alive and who’s gonna survive and who needs to find their family. And that choice, I think, is what makes this such a stunning achievement to me.

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