The excellent new issue (number 50!) of Cinema Scope includes a list (and accompanying pieces) on the best 50 filmmakers under fifty, and it is impressive, giving attention to the giants of contemporary world cinema such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhangke, while still finding space for worthy mainstreamers like the Andersons (Paul Thomas, Paul W.S., Wes) and David Fincher. However, with any such list, even one as well put together as this, there are some disappointing omissions. I’m sure attention is deserved by many other filmmakers, but for me there are three exclusions in particular that should get a mention, each of whom would easily place in my top 20, perhaps top 10 in this category. They are as follows:
James Gray is the greatest American filmmaker under 50. The genius of his cinema is in its calculated return-to-basics storytelling—that of family, tragedy—and to apply a formal rigor utterly lacking in Hollywood cinema (outside of obvious heavyweights)—an absence Gray laments. His contemporaries all come with caveats. With Soderbergh, we question his motives as much as we find interest in his shifting aesthetic ambitions, occasionally drawing zero on his interests beyond cinematography and editing. With Fincher, one has to take the bad with the good, though the good is perfect. The Andersons all come with their own issues. One is maybe too careful, too concerned with his own auteurism, one is talented but only fleetingly original, and one made Alien vs. Predator. James Gray’s films seem to come free of any similar problems. His little-seen debut, Little Odessa, was brilliant, and everything since has been in masterpiece territory. No other filmmakers mentioned have the same level of quality in every aspect of their work. Completely unpretentious, and just as concerned with writing significant stories and characters as controlling the mise en scène and compositions, Gray’s ambitions come off as the quietest. He’s also the best at working with actors, responsible for Mark Wahlberg’s most interesting performances, and for fostering the greatest working American actor, Joaquin Pheonix, who reaches new heights with each successive film they make together. The patterns in Gray’s films are not difficult to discern, all revolving around the existential battle between family and independence with ambiguous, heartrending consequences. However, Gray is not guilty of repeating himself. Each film has expanded and altered his framework, with his greatest achievement, Two Lovers, dispensing of genre with rewarding results. He is fiercely intelligent both intellectually and visually, he is sophisticated and disciplined. In an 18-year career he has only given us 4 films, but they each come with a weight we only recognize in the best cinema—a cinema that feels immortal.
It astonishes me to look back at Kent Jones’ 1996 piece “Tangled Up In Blue”—on a then relatively unknown Olivier Assayas—to see how clearly and acutely he articulated the young cinema of a future master (noting, among other things his “sensory excitement in pure movement”). Here we are, at the same point in the career of Mia Hansen-Love, and she is not some secret to be revealed in the pages of Film Comment, but a recognized force in contemporary cinema. This is partly an indication of the different context in which her films have debuted. It is also, of course, in correlation with an age where word on every film, every filmmaker, every festival, can be consumed at every moment. For me it is impossible not to connect Assayas to Hansen-Love—and hopefully this isn’t condescending as she isn’t in his shadow so much as sharing a spotlight. I wonder if this would be the case were it not for their relationship (he has long been her mentor & lover)–I think yes. One recognizes similar interests and sensibilities, motion, emotion, warmth, music and a Renoir-esque reservoir of generosity. Summer Hours most clearly contains elements we can find in Hansen-Love, but perhaps we can assume this represents a mutual exchange, considering Hours came after her beautiful debut, Tout est pardonné.
Looking back at Jones’ piece, and how it holds up years, and films, later, is sufficient proof of great film criticism—meaning significant proof of great film criticism is originality of perception. May I then suggest, knowing that criticism and film mirror each other is the most curious ways, that proof of great filmmaking is singularity of vision. This is a quality Jones did not fail to find in abundance in Assayas. What is Hansen-Love’s singularity? She has the same investment in defining the universe of her cinema via the registration of emotion on characters’ faces, though with Assayas, Jones rightly saw political and societal implications in these gestures, which are not as easily located here. As with Assayas’ early cinema, Hansen-Love is fixated on adolescence, maturation, freedom and the lack thereof. In approaching this territory, Hansen-Love seems more universal than Assayas. The stories she tell aren’t all that new: first love, heartbreak, loss of a loved one, etc. but the way she tells them is. She can convey the subjectivity of her protagonists while balancing the scale so perfectly that we never feel biased, we recognize the circumstance of each character. This is why we can depart from the lead of Father of My Children and feel the weight of loss without losing focus, and why we never grow angry with Lola Créton’s young lover, lamenting his exit, welcoming his return—we care for both of them, all of them. Hansen-Love’s singularity is in showing us something we’ve seen in ways we haven’t.
This is the choice of mine most likely to be greeted with scoffs, indifference and condescension, but for me Apatow is one of the great American directors. He has impacted an entire industry with his style and comedic philosophy, changing the path of the American comedy for better. The range of his influence wouldn’t mean so much were his own work not so bold, ambitious, and deeply human. At the time of its release, The 40-Year Old Virgin felt monumental. It made everything else look so dated and superficial. That it, in turn, now feels dated compared to the far superior Knocked Up and Funny People, is only complimentary to how Apatow and the comedy have evolved so much and so quickly. For too long, romantic interests in comedies were disposable necessities, and “friends” were just actors hired to work together. But in Apatow, all of a sudden the people mattered and so did their relationships. No matter how silly or vulgar the characters and the films get, the humanity, the heart, never gets detached. Much is owed to the brilliant performers, and to Apatow for presenting them to us. Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, etc. A brand new mine of comedic talent in the cinema, all for the most part brought to you by Apatow, who is smart enough to know that the key ingredient to funny movies are funny people. Touchingly moral, his films offer more meaning than the “serious” fare too often praised in the mainstream. The heaviness of Funny People is not a disguise, and Knocked Up says much about being a good person. The constant casting of his wife and daughters could be seen as self-indulgent, but actually they reveal Apatow to be what he really is—a great sentimentalist, maybe the last.