Thursday, February 19, 2009

Best Direction, 2008

Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married (82 points/13 votes)

"The skills of many of the people who work on a film are visible on screen. The participation of the actors and cinematographers and production designers is obvious and can be graded pretty easily. The script is in evidence with every line of dialogue or turn of the plot. Even the editor, whose work is often best when it's almost invisible, can be judged in the pacing or coherence of a film. What about the director? The role is a little more nebulous so how can you differentiate the best from the rest? Put another more specific way: why did I single out Jonathan Demme as the best director of 2008?

"From the comfort of my theater seat, I approach each film differently. In the case of Rachel Getting Married I was most impressed by the acting. Of course this can be chalked up to the talented cast assembled for the film, but surely Demme deserves a lot of credit for drawing out such raw, personal and vulnerable performances in roles that weren't always sympathetic.

"The Buchmans are a flawed family with a long history and they're captured at a moment of high family stress in the kind of situation that seems to bring out the worst in people. Most ugly family dysfunction goes on behind closed doors, but in Rachel Getting Married, the audience is given a front row seat to witness the carnage. It's rough going for the audience and must've been for the cast as well. Somehow though, Demme created an environment of trust where each actor was comfortable putting herself or himself on the line without the safety nets of charm or likeability to fall back on.

"If not for the full commitment Demme inspired in his cast, Jenny Lumet's brutally emotional script might've fallen flat, but the director was able to draw out edgy, natural and sometimes unpleasant performances from his talented ensemble and the scenario came to gritty, believable life. The result is a searing, challenging film that is also one of the best of the year.

"If that's not directing, I don't know what is." ~ Craig Kennedy

(tie) Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight (78/12)

"Many film-buffs like to ponder the notion of cinematic perfection: does it exist, is it possible to achieve, et cetera. I used to be a skeptic on the topic. After all, for a movie to be perfect, wouldn't it need to tackle every genre, tone, theme, and narrative structure flawlessly at once? Perhaps others would disagree with my definition, but I think that part of being perfect is mastering everything about the field in which one is striving for perfection.

"Then I watched Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which is by no means the best movie I've ever seen, but it is perhaps the movie to come the closest to the above definition of perfection. With the help of an unrivaled cast and crew, Nolan fashioned a film that is at once an adaptation of a comic-book, a nifty action movie, a classic American epic, an examination of celebrity, a glimpse at criminal madness, a Shakespearean tragedy, an uplifting superhero movie, a story of enduring love, a political parable, a hotly-anticipated Hollywood sequel – the list goes on and on.

"The Dark Knight can be read and analyzed as all of the above movies, each with its own set of merits. But what's truly remarkable is that Nolan was able to anchor them all together into a tight, seamless whole that works for fanboys, film school students, and mainstream viewers alike. He allows his picture to play as a roaring opus, but gives it the focus of an intimate drama.

"There's a legitimate way to delve into the specifics of Nolan's work, but it's beyond the scope of this short piece. When one is dealing with as intricate a work of art as The Dark Knight, sometimes one must simply sit back and appreciate the work's grandeur. What is clear is that Nolan has achieved a breathlessly versatile motion picture that has something for everyone and, at over two and a half hours in length, it is never anything short of engrossing. That the logline for the movie could've easily been 'A caped crusader battles a guy wearing smeared white makeup,' just goes to highlight the vastness of Nolan's layered accomplishment." ~ Danny Baldwin

(tie) Andrew Stanton, WALL*E (78/12)

"The concept of directing an animated feature is so nebulous and under appreciated, I myself wavered as to whether or not to even vote for Andrew Stanton--let alone award him my number one spot--despite the fact that the film he directed, Wall*E, is far and away my favorite film of the year. Is it even possible for a singular voice to emerge and dominate on a film with thousands of animators, artists and technicians? Does a film that launched a thousand Happy Meals and corporate tie-ins truly have one author?

"Yet Stanton's guiding hand has shaped the film for the better part of a decade, navigating the film through an endless development and design process. From the smallest of alterations to a full scale reworking of the material. Overseeing the design of the characters and the deeply textured world in which they inhabit. Stanton not only had to meet the impossibly high standards of Pixar (as well as topping his own masterful Finding Nemo) but craft something that appealed equally to undemanding family audiences and high brow cineasts alike.

"What Stanton created though, along with his Pixar collaborators, was something above and beyond a summer blockbuster or mere "kids flick." Equal parts Isaac Asimov and Buster Keaton, built around a first act so desolate and devoid of dialogue it could be mistaken for There Will Be Blood, Wall*E's greatest achievement is the humanity it instils in its artificial subjects. Through creased binocular flaps, animatronic chirps and whistles and the body language of something that can only be described as a garbage compactor on tank treads, Stanton re-contextualizes basic human responses such as curiosity, wonder and yes, even love, by gifting them to creations that have not yet lost their capacity for emotion and the desire to change the world around them.

"Whether soaring through piles of dirt caked refuge or flying down sterile hallways of a future society grown so apathetic it's literally become infantilized, Wall*E is ultimately (and appropriately for the time we now live in) a film of hope. That the human spirit lives on even when humans have seemingly lost all use for it. Blending elements of slapstick, post apocalyptic science fiction, musical (whoever would have thought Hello, Dolly! would ever become relevant again) and melodrama, Stanton maneuverers one hairpin curve of a tonal shift after another, earning our laughs and our tears without ever playing to the cheap seats. It's bold, visually dazzling, soaring filmmaking all created from nothing with only ones and zeros." ~ Andrew Dignan

Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler (75/14)
Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York (71/11)

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Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yay for Jonathan Demme! Craig, you really get at Demme's contribution and how he helped shaped a movie that, at it's core, does not draw attention to itself as a "director's film." Nice work. This kind of writing is why it's such an honor to contribute the Muriels-- to have one's writing exist is such company-- but even more such a pleasure simply to read, day in and day out.

Bryan Whitefield said...

I'm very happy with these results. Seeing Demme and Christopher Nolan as 1/2 is satisfying as it represents some of the best cinema had to offer from completely different approaches; one a well-crafted indie mess the other an ultra-stylized re-imagination of the summer blockbuster.