APR 2002


This month I picked six of my favorite directors from various corners of the globe. I chose the individual films (each director has made many others, all of which are good) based primarily on the criterion of which ones I have viewed most repeatedly, and most recently. One trait that all of these directors share is that the films they make are unmistakably theirs. No one makes movies like these, and in some cases we might be glad that there aren’t too many more movies like these around. Hopefully this will serve as a bit of an antidote to my usual extreme close up on a single movie—until next month.

In alphabetical order:

Dario Argento

Sometimes unfortunately labeled, "the Italian Hitchcock," Argento pushes the envelope of extreme, fetishized violence more than Hitch ever did. Much of the time he pushes it right over the edge into a territory that is surreal and even absurd. His best films play out like nightmares—they explore their obscure subjects with a twisted internal logic that turns the world into a very scary and confusing place. Argento makes horror movies with an eye for the seductive beauty and complexity that lies within the things that frighten us.

Inferno (1980)

A deeply unsettling film in which most of the scares come not from a humanoid monster of any sort, but from the set itself—a bizarrely constructed building with a richly furnished basement (completely underwater) and claustrophobic secret crawlspaces between the building’s floors and ceilings. I don’t think I could recount the plot to you five minutes after seeing it, but I’ve seldom seen a more terrifying movie.

Phenomena (1985)

Starring Jennifer Connelly as a psychic teen with an ability to communicate with insects. Argento goes all-out for the gross-out with super slo-mo decapitations and a swimming pool filled with maggots and corpses. All this plays out, however, against incongruously beautiful European mountain landscapes. Not much rational sense available here, just plenty of raw, roller-coaster catharsis.

Opera (1987)

One of Agento’s more rational narratives in which a young woman’s past begins to dangerously impinge upon her future as a rising opera star (and living human being). Very straightforward compared to some of his earlier movies, but no less intense. One sequence prefigures the "bullet-time" effects made famous in The Matrix years later.

Luc Besson

This French director has crossed over successfully into the US multiplex market with action- and special-effects-oriented movies featuring American movie stars. I particularly enjoy Besson’s films because his peculiar personal sensibility always comes through very strongly in them. This sensibility blends sentimental heaviness (sometimes the main character dies by the end of the film) with a goofiness that seems to emanate from Besson’s undying belief in the goodness of humanity and the power of love.

Subway (1985)

In this early film (Besson’s second), a wild young man (a pre-Highlander Christopher Lambert) discovers an underground drop-out society living deep in the subway tunnels under Paris. It’s clear that he is on the run from something, but it doesn’t too much matter what it is. He forms a Jazz combo with the subway dwellers and gets chased by cops nicknamed Batman and Robin. Subway firmly establishes Besson’s vigorous and quirky individualism and "love conquers all" mentality.

The Big Blue (1988)

A sprawling, fictionalized biopic about a deep-sea diver who uses no breathing apparatus. It introduces to Besson’s work the tragedy of otherwise strong people who turn their backs on their friends and lovers in favor of something otherworldly. As with some of his other films, The Big Blue alternately breaks one’s heart and sends it soaring—if one can tune in to its odd wavelength.

The Fifth Element (1997)

A frenetic sci-fi comic book of a movie visually designed by two of France’s greatest comics artists—Jean-Claude Mezieres and Jean "Moebius" Giraud. Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich save the universe from Gary Oldman and his partner Pure Evil (honestly). Nearly continuous parallel-cutting flashes and jumps across vast geographical spaces to hammer home the unity of all life forms in the cosmos.

Werner Herzog

This German director makes films that generally center on a character (often played by the late Klaus Kinski) driven by some obsession. His movies shift easily, even gracefully, from the absurd to the sublime, and sometimes even manage to combine the two.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

A remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic that draws directly on the artistic tradition of the sublime, replicating that school’s landscape paintings to place Count Dracula in a setting that mirrors his overwhelming and eternal power and also his unfathomably deep sadness. There has never been a more unsettling Lord of the Undead than Kinski’s.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

A wild trip down the Amazon River with Kinski as a man (literally) crazy about opera. He’s set on building a grand theatre in the middle of the jungle and all he has to do to succeed is drag a giant steamship over a mountain—by hand. Today it would all be done with computer-generated images, but back then Herzog and Kinski really did it in the actual rainforest, and the sheer insanity of it captivates one completely.

Jim Jarmusch

From humble beginnings experimenting with spare footage given to him by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, Jarmusch has repeatedly proven himself one of the United States’ most intelligent and hip independent directors. He’s also one of the most American of filmmakers, creating movies that study the places where cultures intersect and mix—or refuse to.

Dead Man (1995)

Stars Johnny Depp as an accountant in the old American West (you know, the wild one) on a sublime journey to his own death. The narrative unfolds as a series of odd episodes linked by strange coincidences and a Native American named Nobody. Features great cameos by Robert Mitchum, Billy-Bob Thornton, Crispin Glover, and Iggy Pop.

Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai (1999)

Another story about a man on a journey to his own death, but this time he is not only aware of that inevitability—he is very much in charge of it. It’s not a bleak suicide story though. Forest Whitaker in the title role has an intense single-mindedness as a hired assassin who is as loyal to his employer as an ancient samurai.

Beat Takeshi Kitano

This guy is sort of like a Japanese Howard Stern—he is their "King of All Media," and much of what he does is taboo-busting comedy. His movies, however, are mostly violent yakuza (gangster) stories. Still, his background in comedy tinges even the most brutal of his films with a cutting understanding of the human condition. It also gives his films their structure as series of "gags", with most scenes working like jokes with a set-up and a punch line.

Sonatine (1993)

A yakuza in exile (Kitano stars, as he does in most of his films) waits for his death and plays wacky games with his henchmen. A humorous and touching investigation of codes of masculinity disguised as a gangster shoot- ‘em-up.

Kikujiro (1999)

After criticism for the violence of his movies, Kitano decided he would make a movie with no onscreen violence at all. He almost succeeded. This is a sentimental road movie with a grumpy ex-gangster taking a little boy on a summer-vacation search for his estranged mother. The slapstick humor—the way it is precisely staged for the camera—reminds me of exuberantly goofy old silent-film comedy shorts.

Brother (2000)

Kitano’s first US co-production and another entry in his gangster movie resume. Co-stars Omar Epps as a small-time LA drug dealer with whose gang Kitano (in exile again from his home territory) hooks up by way of his American half-brother. A retread of past work to some extent, but it also forcefully confirms and extends his use of the genre to savagely critique masculinity and its role in accursed late twentieth-century capitalism.

David Lynch

Since first seeing Eraserhead in junior high school at the long-since defunct Le Bijou art-house theater in Kalamazoo (where I spent much of my youth), I have been an avid Lynch follower. Each one of his movies is simultaneously wholly unique and filled with reflections of his other works creating an oeuvre that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. As evidenced by the two-to-five-year time lapse between any two of his films, Lynch makes movies very carefully and with great passion—and it shows in every frame.

Eraserhead (1977)

This movie, Lynch’s first feature, took him years to make. With each creepy image so lovingly and meticulously constructed, one cannot help but be drawn into this film’s hypnotic spell. Even if one falls asleep as its threadbare narrative plays out, Eraserhead-induced dreams are guaranteed to entertain. To this day Lynch refuses to divulge how he created the grossly-deformed "baby" that features prominently in the film.

Dune (1984)

A much maligned film, and unjustly so. It bombed at the box office and (fortunately) put an end to any Hollywood blockbuster career Lynch may have had. Although the Frank Herbert source material is clearly more epic than the stories he creates himself, one of Lynch’s core themes is powerfully in evidence. Quoting Dune’s protagonist Paul Atreides: "The sleeper must awaken!"

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

The Twin Peaks movie came perhaps too long after the Twin Peaks TV series ended. Its opening image of a television set being angrily smashed sets the tone. This is a dark, grim film about the painful last days of Laura Palmer (the beautiful teen whose death initiated the TV series). It is stripped of nearly all of its predecessor’s quirky comedy in light of the gravity of the sexual abuse that it takes as its subject matter.

Other most honorable mentions go to Germany’s R.W. Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, Hong Kong’s Wong Kar Wai and Ringo Lam, New York City’s Abel Ferrara and Hal Hartley, and the UK’s Nicolas Roeg. If you don’t know their work already, then I suggest you look them up. R

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