Now that the decade has come to an end I thought I would take a look back at the work of some of our best (or best known) directors. Some were at the top of their game in the decade while others stumbled. All of them had their share of successes, though not necessarily financial success.
This article will take a look at careers of popular directors, some of my favorites, directors to watch in the next decade, the worst director of the decade and finally my pick for the 3 best directors of the decade. I will also make my choice for the worst director of the decade.
This decade found five of my favorite directors making only nine films combined. John Carpenter, a favorite of mine since I was young, made only Ghosts of Mars, a violent and almost satirical look at B action movies. James Cameron’s current smash hit Avatar was his only big screen film release. After a smashing debut with Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze only made two films in this decade but they were both superb – Adaptation and Where The Wild Things Are. Paul Thomas Anderson made a huge splash with Boogie Nights and Magnolia marking him as an important director to watch but this decade he only made the Adam Sandler drama Punchdrunk Love and There Will Be Blood, both of which proved he is still a top director to watch and will hopefully make more movies in the decade to come. David Cronenberg only made three films but proved with his last two that his talents have gotten stronger. After the disturbing Spider, Cronenberg made his masterpiece A History of Violence. His latest film was Eastern Promises, which was also a very strong film.
My favorite director is John Sayles known for his character driven studies with deep themes of racism and ecology to name a few, made only four movies in the decade. Sunshine State and Silver City were both superb films expected of him. Casa De Los Baby’s was, for me, his first and only stumble as director. His last film, Honeydripper, was unseen by me as it never played near where I live.
Brian DePalma, one of the hot directors of the 70’s and 80’s and often compared to Hitchcock for the thrillers he made returned to that genre with both Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia, two decent thrillers well below what you expect from DePalma. He also directed the miserable Mission To Mars and Redacted, a war film unseen by most people including me. Quentin Tarantino is back with Inglorious Basterds and is garnering well deserved Oscar talk but before this made only Kill Bill (1 &2) and co-directed Grindhouse in which his story, Death Proof, contains some of the best stunts and chases you will ever see.
Now here is a look at some of the better-known directors of the decade and how they fared.
WOODY ALLEN – Allen, despite now being 75, still works at a pace of one film per year and made ten films in the decade. While some were less than others I feel that even Allen’s lesser films are better than many directors good films. Allen also returned to form with one of his best movies in years. His lesser but still entertaining movies were Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream. His stronger movies were Small Time Crooks, Melinda and Melinda and his latest film Whatever Works. But Allen proved he still had it with the extremely dark Match Point about a newly married man who has to resort to terrible deeds to rid himself of a mistress who doesn’t want to be out of the picture.
Best Film of the Decade: Match Point by far.
Worst Film of the Decade: Anything Else, which wins (or loses) by default. It is still a fun film.
TIM BURTON – Tim Burton has long been one of the best and most original of our directors. For the decade Burton only made five movies and only two of them were original works. For some reason Burton got the remake bug as three of his movies were stories previously told on screen. He started the decade with the remake of Planet of the Apes that proved that maybe some movies aren’t meant to be remade. Next came his highly original Big Fish about a son being regaled with wild but possibly truthful stories about his father. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory was a darker and less successful version of Willy Wonka.Corpse Bride was an enjoyable animated scare fest in the vain of Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton finished the decade with the violent musical adaptation of Sweeney Todd, a bit of a risk that Burton pulled of with flying colors.
Best Film of the Decade: Big Fish in a landslide.
Worst Film of the Decade: Planet of the Apes, also in a landslide. This is his worst film.
BOBBY and PETER FARRELLY – In the 90’s The Farrely Brothers created two comedic masterpieces, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary. They have yet to reach that level again but still make films that offer good laughs for the most part. But this decade saw hit and misses like most comedic filmmakers run into and unfortunately they only made five movies in the decade. They had two misses (Osmosis Jones and The Heartbreak Kid), two fun films (Me, Myself and Irene and Stuck On You) and one that came the closest to the greatness they achieved in the 90’s (Fever Pitch, a sadly overlooked film).
Best Film of the Decade: Fever Pitch, an extremely funny look at baseball fanatics.
Worst Film of the Decade: The Heartbreak Kid, which proved once again that remakes are unnecessary.
RON HOWARD – Long one of our better directors, Howard hit and missed during the decade. His misses were The Grinch, The Missing, The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. Howard’s hits, and they were terrific, were A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon.
Best Film of the Decade: A Beautiful Mind
Worst Film of the Decade: The Missing
MARTIN SCORSESE – Scorsese has been one of our top directors since the 1970’s but he may well have had his best decade in the 00’s. He only made three films, all of them great and received Oscar nominations for each one. Had he worked more he probably would have been in my list of the three best directors of the decade. His films were Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed. For good measure he also directed the Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light. Scorsese seems to actually be getting better with age and movie fans are all the more thankful for it.
Best Film of the Decade: Gangs of New York
Worst Film of the Decade: Are you kidding me?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN – I am still of the opinion that Shyamalan is not a flash in the pan after The Sixth Sense but he has only come close to that film once in the five films he made in the decade. His quality has admittedly declined in his last three films but I still think he has some terrific work ahead of him. Shyamalan followed up The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable, a completely original and under appreciated film about the superhero in an ordinary man that improves with each viewing. The film is strong but has a very weak ending. Signs is easily his best film of the decade and since then the quality has diminished starting with The Village, a film few people liked but I did. Lady in the Water has some good ideas that go nowhere and The Happening has an intriguing premise that sputters and creaks to a weak conclusion and is hampered by a terrible lead performance by Mark Wahlberg.
Best Film of the Decade: Signs
Worst Film of the Decade: The Happening
STEVEN SPIELBERG – Long regarded as one of the best directors of all time, Spielberg had a hot and cold decade choosing between lighter box office fare and more serious subjects. Spielberg made seven movies in the decade and the most surprising thing to me was that, in my opinion, only two of them would be considered great. He started the decade with a strong film, AI, which he took from Stanley Kubrick after the director’s death. His next film, and best of the decade, was the futuristic thriller Minority Report with Tom Cruise. Spielberg took Catch Me If You Can into comedy/drama areas he has rarely explored with good success. The Terminal and War of The Worlds were enjoyable enough but lesser affairs than we expect. Spielberg returned to form with Munich and garnered his only Best Director nomination for the decade. He finished the decade with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which was fun, but far below expectations.
Best film of the decade: Minority Report
Worst film of the decade: The Terminal
Before listing my choice for the three best directors of the decade it behooves me to go the other way and pick the worst director of the decade. Again it would be easy to pick someone that directs mad slasher films or low budget romances but that’s just kicking someone when they are down. No. I wanted to pick a major director who directs major films and in the end it was an easy choice for me.
My choice for the worst director of the decade:
MICHAEL BAY – It isn’t enough that this man directs big budget, loud movies that rely on nothing but visuals with no worry about story or characters, but Bay is also responsible (as producer) for remakes of some of the horror/mad slasher films of the 1980’s including The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hitcher, Friday the 13thand the upcoming Nightmare on Elm Street. But as a director Bay made 5 films in the decade and, interestingly, the only one I thought was tolerable was Bay’s only box office flop. Perhaps his movies and I just don’t mesh. His first film of the decade was Pearl Harbor, a two hour and fifteen minute love story) and a dumb one at that) that is interrupted with about forty minutes of impressive war footage. This was bay’s one attempt at a story but made the mistake of wrapping a dull love story around one of the greatest tragedies in the history of this country. Next up was Bad Boys II, a sequel to his 1995 hit with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Like its predecessor this was a loud movie filled with chase scenes, explosions and stupid villains. Bay’s next film, The Island, was actually a mildly entertaining futuristic thriller about a man on the run with a woman in hopes of getting to an “island” where lottery winners go to live the good life. Bay’s next two films were Transformers and its sequel, two loud and long action movies directed in Bay’s usual manic style resulting in confusion as to what is actually going on. But his films make money and as long as we all shell out money for his films we are asking to get more like it. And don’t worry folks, Bay is scouting locations for his next movie…. you guessed it…Transformers 3.
Here is a quick look at five directors to watch this decade:
Craig Brewer – Brewer has only made two films thus far but both are highly original and quite good. Hustle and Flow followed a pimp trying to make it as a rap artist and garnered star Terrence Howard an Oscar nomination. His follow up film was Black Snake Moan with Christina Ricci as a young woman on a collision course with trouble who is held by Samuel Jackson against her will until she finds herself and can interact properly in the world again. I am truly looking forward to more of his films.
Todd Field – Field is a former actor now director who made only two films in the decade but both were critically acclaimed and makes one eager to see what he will do next. His first film was In The Bedroom about a family coping with the murder of their son. The film was nominated for Best Picture and garnered nominations for three of its actors (Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei). His follow up film was the terrific Little Children about life in a small suburban community disrupted by adultery, gossip and the sudden appearance of a convicted child molester. Field’s films tell stories people can relate to without rushing to obvious and sudden conclusions.
Tony Gilroy – Gilroy is an acclaimed screenwriter who made the jump to directing his own scripts with the superb thriller Michael Clayton with George Clooney and earned himself nominations for his script and direction. He followed that up with the less successful but tricky and enjoyable Duplicity with Julia Roberts. I look forward to more intelligent, well-written thrillers in the future from Gilroy.
Paul Haggis – After having several scripts of his made into successful movies, Haggis decided to helm his own work and came up with two of the most powerfully unforgettable films of the decade. Crash, a multi-layered character piece about race and violence won the Best Picture of its year. His follow-up film was the equally powerful In The Valley of Elah starring Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones as a father trying to uncover the truth of his son’s death just after returning from Iraq. It was a strong film that failed to find an audience but deserves to be seen. Haggis will likely continue to make strong message films in the next decade and, as long as he isn’t preachy, will continue to make terrific films.
Jason Reitman – When you have directed three films and get nominated for Best Director for two of them, you are definitely a director to watch – closely. Reitman (son of Ivan, director of Stripes and Ghostbusters) made his directorial debut with the dark comedy Thank You For Smoking but came into his own with the enormously popular Juno and last year’s acclaimed Up in the Air. Thus far Reitman’s films and themes remind me of Frank Capra in his prime which is reason for great optimism for his upcoming films.
Now here are my choices for the three best directors of the decade.
3) CHRISTOPHER NOLAN – Nolan made his directorial debut with his best film thus far but followed it with four very strong movies that make one doubly excited about what he has to offer in the future. Nolan’s debut feature was the intricately written thriller Memento, about a man with no short-term memory trying to solve the murder of his wife. Interestingly the film is told backwards which only adds to the riddle. He followed that film up with the thriller Insomnia starring Al Pacino as a L.A. homicide investigator who goes to Alaska as a favor to a friend to track down a killer (Robin Williams) but finds himself there at a time when the sun is always up. Soon enough insomnia sets in and Pacino finds he is being toyed with by the killer why trying to keep his sanity, as he grows more and more tired. Next up was the re-boot of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins, and the franchise was re-born. Another intricate thriller with twists was The Prestige, a film that demands more than one viewing to discover its many secrets. Lastly Nolan finished out the decade with his superb Batman sequel, The Dark Knight. If anyone has seen scenes from Nolan’s upcoming Inception, one knows that they are in the hands of a confident and terrific director.
2) THE COEN BROTHERS – Although Joel Coen has always been credited as sole director save for their last two films, it has always been understood that both Joel and brother Ethan are co-directors. They have been, for over twenty years, consistently the most original filmmakers in Hollywood. The joy of the Coens films is that even their less successful films are better than many directors’ great films. In the decade they made seven movies and only two of them were, for me, not terrific but still enjoyable. Those were the dark comedies Intolerable Cruelty with George Clooney and the remake of The Ladykillers with Tom Hanks. Well above average were O’ Brother Where Art Thou? combining a depression era prison road picture with Homer’s Odyssey. The dark comedy The Man Who Wasn’t There, shot in beautiful black and white and featuring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber whose trying to find some meaning to his existence. Burn After Reading is a spy thriller/comedy about normal people getting in way over their heads when they try to interfere in government business. Finally the Coens made two more masterpieces to add to their mantel. The first was the Oscar winning No Country For Old Men about a man who finds some money in an aborted drug deal and soon finds himself the target of a hunt by both the police and the men whose money was left at the scene. This year’s A Serious Man was yet another black comedy about a Jewish man facing trials and tribulations in his personal life, love life and job. The Coens tell deceptively simple stories in complicated and original ways and often come up with conclusions that are not pat enough for the average filmgoer but make you think. How many directors make you think at the end of their movies?
1) CLINT EASTWOOD – This may come as a bit of a surprise but the biggest box office star of the 70’s and some of the 80’s is, in my opinion, the best director working today. Amazing considering that the body of work I will be talking about was done in his 70’s, a time when many directors are calling it a career. As the decade started Eastwood was still acting in most of the films he directed but by the end of it he was firmly behind the camera save for a few exceptions and, in the process, wound up with three Oscar nominations and one Oscar for Best Director. Eastwood made 9 movies in the decade and all of them were good at the very least but an astounding 6 of them I would consider masterpieces. His two weakest (for lack of a better term) but still enjoyable films were Blood Work in which he also starred and his latest movie, Invictus, which was supposed to be about Nelson Mandela but was more about the country’s quest for the World Soccer Cup than anything about the man himself. His other strong film was Space Cowboys, an absolutely delightful action-comedy about four over the hill men getting their shot to be astronauts and go into space. Eastwood starred with Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland and with that cast you simply cannot miss. Eastwood’s masterpieces began with Mystic River about a family dealing with the tragic murder of their teenage daughter. Sean Penn would win the Oscar for his role as the tormented father and Eastwood would garner a nomination. Next was the Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby, a movie that seemed to come out of nowhere but stole the hearts of its audience and Oscar voters and gave Eastwood his second director’s trophy. Eastwood then made two films about the war, one from the American point of view (Flags of Our Fathers) and one from the standpoint of the Japanese (Letters From Iwo Jima) and created two amazingly powerful films. Of the two I prefer the latter (for which Eastwood was nominated again). In 2008 Eastwood created not one but two terrific movies and that is a feat for any director. First up was Changeling about a woman’s search for her kidnapped son and the second search when, many years later, the boy returns and she is convinced it isn’t her son. Next up was Gran Torino, which put Eastwood back in front of the camera as a racist man who comes to the aid of some Oriental teenagers who live next door to him and are being terrorized by a gang. Eastwood takes this simple story and turns it into something special, something that Eastwood has done his whole career as a director. I hope he is able to work well into his 80’s.