Though I’ve been getting into podcasts since I first got a smart phone last winter, I’ve been branching out just a bit more as the coronavirus quarantine continues. In particular, I’ve been trying to listen to more film-oriented podcasts. Via The Rewatchables, I’ve gotten a little bit into The Big Picture with Amanda Dobbins and Sean Fennessey. They cover a lot of pop culture that I frankly don’t have the time or energy to follow, so not every episode is really made for me, but a couple of the more recent episodes have been really engaging, and Dobbins/Fennessey have really provocative conversations.
A couple weeks ago, I listened to “The Director Game,” in which Fennessey and Dobbins have a conversation with Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot, about their favorite directors from each decade from the mid-twentieth century onward. Esmail stipulated a few rules for the game. First, for each decade, you pick only from directors who made their feature commercial debuts in the decade. Second, you pick the one you think is the most significant and the one most significant to you personally.
It’s exactly the kind of oddly competitive nerd discussion I used to love having when I was in college or when I participated in online message boards. Lists and rankings and all that stuff are enormous fun for me. As such, I felt a bit of umbrage when the discussion of the 1980s and 2000s made them out to be inferior decades in terms of the crop of talent that came up in them.
Generally speaking, I subscribe to the notion that there are banner years in cinema: years that clearly produce more masterpieces than others for whatever number of reasons. That’s why it makes intuitive sense to say that years like 1939 or 1999 are outstanding years for cinema. They just are. To the extent that chronological units like weeks, months, years, and decades are helpful for ranking the relative value of cinematic achievement (and you may think that any such project is pernicious or useless or a distraction from more pertinent questions), I think that years kind of hit a sweet spot.
Smaller units of measurement can’t account for things like release schedules in different countries, and they get skewed by the types of programming that are most common in each season. So someone who loves summer blockbusters is always going to find rich veins of gold in months like May, June, and July. Someone who really digs Oscar bait (or awards-season hopefuls in whatever country) might gravitate toward the winter months. But years kind of balance out and capture the variety and depth that any year has to offer, and it accounts for worldwide releases in a way that domestic releases in a given country just don’t. For those of us with eclectic or omnivorous tastes, a year encapsulates virtually everything we love about movies while still enabling a meaningful discussion of both individual and aggregate artistic merit.
A decade is a little too big of a unit for that. Decades are more helpful in analyzing trends and trajectories. That’s why we can talk about American cinema in terms like the Reaganite eighties or the American new wave of the long seventies. So if you’re really into raunchy sex comedies, it might be that you can make a sincere case for the superlative output of the 80s; if you’re into vaudevillian slapstick comedy, you probably have to plump for the silent greats of the twenties or thirties. But if you’re looking for a representative palette of different styles and diverse voices at the height of their artistry, I think that each decade has a case to be made.
Put another way, if you’re judging each decade by the number of masterpieces and otherwise good films that came out within that time frame, it’s harder to place one decade over another, especially if you take a more capacious view of cinema’s overall output. And if your game is to pick the most significant director from other directors who came up during that decade, every decade since at least the early twentieth century contains an embarrassment of riches.
Esmail referred to the 1980s talent pool as a “drought,” and everyone seemed to regard the 2000s as a significant letdown after the high of the new talent that broke out in the 1990s. There’s not really any question that the 70s and 90s were great decades for cinema, and they certainly set the stage for the emergence of some of cinema’s most vital voices. But I think that characterizing the 80s and Aughts as also-rans says a lot more about the priorities and tastes of those making that judgment than it does about the quality or quantity of the talents that made their debuts in those decades.
Here’s the list of directors who were shortlisted on The Big Picture for the 1980s.
Joe and Ethan Coen
Lars Von Trier
Gus Van Sant
Fennessey picked Lee, Dobbins picked Soderbergh, and Esmail picked the Coen brothers. Let me just throw a few more names in the mix.
Of the names I added to the list, I acknowledge that Bae is obscure. I’ve only seen one of his films, Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (1989), but it’s a knockout. As for the others, Zhang and Kaige represent the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers, and they obviously still are major voices in world cinema. Sokurov is one of Russia’s most distinct voices; I wager that he’s may be best known for Russian Ark (2002), an impressive Steadicam single-take film. Haneke and Hughes are obviously major filmmakers, and even though Haneke is probably the director with the most artistic cachet, I think that Hughes’s DNA is shot through American cinema. One might argue that Greenaway is maybe the most significant British artist to make a feature debut in the 1980s, though I’m open to correction on that point.
Here’s my short-shortlist of the ten directors in the running for me.
Joel and Ethan Coen
For the most significant, Cameron really can’t be underrated. I wasn’t a huge fan of Avatar, but it’s undeniable fact that when Cameron makes a movie, it matters to the industry and to audiences. I’d argue that Titanic still is more in the conversation than Avatar, though I guess we’ll see how things shake out once the dozen-odd sequels to it finally start to roll out in theaters. Personally, I think he peaked with the run from 1984’s The Terminator through Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which includes Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989). Absolutely insane.
To be honest, I don’t know how one can look at a list of these ten directors (let alone the longer shortlist) and not be blown away. Apart from McTiernan, Henson, and Hughes, one of whom is essentially retired and the other two are deceased, all of these are still vital filmmakers.
This is also a list of filmmakers who are often and somewhat consistently underrated. Apart from maybe Lee, the Coens and WKW, I feel like there’s still an ongoing effort among cinephiles to ensconce most of these directors as part of the canonical auteurs. It may seem foolish to say that Cameron is consistently underrated, but he does usually face some sort of blowback every time one of his movies comes out and sets a new box office record. And his earlier films have a much narrower audience appeal than his more recent ones seem to have. Nearly everybody in the world who watches movies saw Avatar and Titanic, but I think that there are a lot of people who might have to be talked into watching (or adequately appreciating) movies like Aliens or the first two Terminator films.
Soderbergh is so prolific that he’s had a lot of whiffs at bat as well as home runs, though he mostly bats down the middle. But he still makes entertaining films that touch on ideas and themes he cares about. Logan Lucky puts a country twist on Ocean’s Eleven, and Haywire was a very well-crafted action thriller. In fact, half of the directors I’ve listed are mainly genre auteurs. Raimi, Cameron, Mann, and McTiernan are all action or sf/fantasy filmmakers by reputation, and the Coens consistently return to crime as a generic framework. Never mind that they have defined what it means to work at the height of one’s craft in those (or any other) genres.
I think Henson and Hughes deserve some special consideration. After he died and the world realized that they wouldn’t get any more John Hughes movies, I think the critical reconsideration commenced in earnest. Hughes was not the most nuanced or considered screenwriter, and his direction was often a bit heavy-handed. But he created movies with memorable characters, and when he blended a lighter touch with the sincerity for which he’s best known, the results could be incredible. My favorite Hughes movie, for what it’s worth, is probably Uncle Buck (1989).
Probably the most consistently underrated director in that list, though, is Henson. As I remarked in my post on rewatching the Muppets constantly in the last couple months, The Great Muppet Caper is an awesome technical achievement. There is plenty to gawk at in the more mundane sequences, but the musical numbers are ambitious and dazzling. The sequence in the Dubonnay Club, for instance, is a marvel. It’s accomplishment enough to choreograph, light, and shoot such a stunning sequence, but then Henson introduces Miss Piggy—a puppet—as the central performer. Around Piggy, he also keeps track of the repartee between Kermit, Fozzy, and Gonzo, as well as between Miss Holiday and her brother, Nicky, who is the film’s villain, then introduces a plot complication of Nicky becoming infatuated with Piggy and igniting Kermit’s jealousy. This scene keeps all of the characters in focus while advancing the plot and character development. And—again—I’ll remind you that half of those characters are puppets.
If it weren’t enough that Henson careens out of the gate as a feature film director with a flashy, technically amazing Muppet sequel, he also directed two other major feature films in the 80s: The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). Both of these have been essentially cult films since their release, but they’re iconic, and they represent an artist pushing his medium—film, yes, but mostly puppetry—as far as possible within the paradigm of the age.
None of this came out of nowhere, of course. Henson had been creating, performing in, and directing television since the 1950s, so his technical chops were honed by decades working in television before he made the leap to film. In Henson’s time, television was nowhere as prestigious as it now is, but when he put his name on something, it was an imprimatur of quality. I don’t know if critics took the Muppets seriously in the decades that Henson was alive, and I don’t know if they do now. But Henson was a serious artist who took seriously the art of silliness.
With that in mind, Henson is my pick for most personally significant to me at the moment. If Henson weren’t an artist of genuine caliber, I would have to suicide rather than watch the Muppet movies as many times as I have. But rewatching them has only deepened my appreciation for what a great artist he was, and the caliber of excellence achieved by his collaboration with all the puppeteers in his cadre.
As for the most significant director, full stop, I think I’ll plump for Wong Kar-Wai. In part, that’s because Fennessey, Dobbins, and Esmail already went for Lee, Soderbergh, and the Coens, and as I argued earlier, Cameron is so obviously significant that I feel that he doesn’t need any help from me at this point. WKW also doesn’t really need any help from me in most respects, since he’s consistently recognized as working at the top echelon of cinematic art. What I feel needs to be said is that it’s astounding that a director with his methods and thematic obsessions can continue to secure funding and such a wide audience.
Here’s the shortlist presented on The Big Picture for the Aughts.
Cary Joji Fukunaga
Joshua and Benjamin Safdie
That’s a really strong list of filmmakers, and it’s a bit weird to me that nobody in the podcast made the case for it being a particularly strong showing. A chunk of the conversation dwelt on whether Dobbins cheated in claiming Sofia Coppola for the 2000s (she did), then Fennessey and Esmail plumped for Bong, with Fennessey making a nod to Wright as a personal favorite (although Wright also arguably is not eligible). There are several directors who weren’t shortlisted by Fennessey, Dobbins, and Esmail. Here are some that come to mind.
John Cameron Mitchell
Alejandro González Iñárritu
David Gordon Green
Joe and Anthony Russo
Let’s start with some obvious disqualifications. A lot of these names are filmmakers who made one or two good (maybe great) films, then petered out into mediocrity or simply haven’t sustained their output. Some of them haven’t made truly great films, but are important for other reasons. But I think that this decade produced or codified some really great talent; talent that puts it on the same footing with the 70s or 90s. Let’s start with some obvious picks for the cream of the crop.
Bong Joon-ho has been world-class for years. Well before he made Parasite (which I still haven’t seen), he made two films that were international critical and commercial hits: The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013). I’ve never seen Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), but Memories of Murder (2003) compares favorably to David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece, Zodiac. And Mother (2009) is a devastating (and devastatingly well-crafted) character study in the key of Hitchcock. Going with Bong is a safe (and canny) choice, since he has consistently produced masterpiece-level cinema for twenty years, and with Parasite, he’s well-positioned to continue following his own muse.
Rian Johnson is another safe bet. His work has been fairly consistent, and it certainly showcases a singular voice. He’s a fan of genre films, and tinkers with genre conventions in aesthetically-pleasing and conceptually intriguing ways. I think his two most artistically successful films are Brick (2005) and Knives Out (2019), both of which lean heavily into different brands of detective story—hardboiled noir and Agatha Christie ensemble drama. On the whole, I always look forward to his next movie, even if a couple of them haven’t hit my expectations—but I feel like that’s also a good sign, in that he has set my expectations so unreasonably high.
*Edgar Wright is perhaps his generation’s leading cinematic authority on genre films, but it’s arguable that he should not be eligible for this discussion, since his first feature film, A Fistful of Fingers, premiered in a commercial theater in 1995.
*Sofia Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, premiered in 1999. Amanda Dobbins plumped for her because the film technically premiered at Cannes, but came out in U.S. theaters in April 2000. It’s listed as a 1999 film in Wikipedia, Imdb, and literally everywhere else that matters as a reputable archive of film release dates. So: No, Dobbins. Sorry. Sofia Coppola is simply not eligible for the 2000s.
Of Fennessey’s shortlist, I think Apichatpong Weerasethkul is maybe the next-easiest pick after Bong for world cinema. I didn’t really get into Syndromes and a Century but I really dug Tropical Malady (2004) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). To be frank, I don’t think I really understand any of his movies, but they’re still very powerful and very singular. If the question is, “Who is successfully doing things with cinema that nobody else can or will?” then Weerasethakul is one of the more obvious answers.
As the hosts discussed in the podcast, Affleck and Glazer have done some really strong stuff, but Glazer has worked so infrequently in feature film production, whereas Affleck started hot, then seemingly put his directing career on hold after Live by Night (which I rather liked, incidentally).
It’s possible that Phillips may accrue a higher profile now that he has Joker in his portfolio, and Jenkins only may have started to hit his stride with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk (neither of which I’ve yet seen). I could say the same of Chazelle. And in the case of Apatow, I suspect that his directing career peaked a bit early with Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin, but he’s continued to make well-liked-enough films, and as a producer and creator, he’s had an incredible influence on comedy in mass culture in the last two decades. In terms of raw output, though, I think Bong and Weerasethakul have these directors beat.
There are a couple trends with filmmakers from the 2000s that are worth commenting on, though, and I think that these trends tie into things that they either discussed elsewhere in Big Picture or not so much at all. My shortlist of potentially significant filmmakers from the Aughts is as long as the one mostly compiled by Fennessey. I’d like to tie together some of the strands involved in my shortlist and why I think that leaving those strands unremarked skewed discussion of the decade in some unproductive directions.
A big strand relatively untouched in the Big Picture discussion of the Aughts is the active crossover between feature film production and television projects involving major filmmakers. It’s true that there has always been cross-fertilization of talent in television and feature film production. Sidney Lumet (Dobbins’s pick from the 1960s) is part of that, not to mention filmmakers like Jim Henson, whom I mentioned earlier. You can give me a dozen more apt examples, I’m sure. But it has been remarked ad nauseam that we are currently in a golden age of television. Not only are television series as good as they’ve ever been, but the feature film endeavors of companies like Netflix and Amazon are either attracting major talents like Martin Scorsese or they are establishing younger or less-recognized talents as major voices.
The current era of film/tv cross-fertilization has deep roots, and those roots are reflected in the lists put together by Fennessey and myself. Apatow and Abrams most obviously worked in television for a long time before launching prodigious filmmaking careers. And music video and commercial directing, as has been the case since the 1980s, still fosters a great deal of major talent, including Glazer, and as well as visionaries like Snyder and McG. (Although I contend that, whatever you think of Snyder’s merits as a stylist, he’s had a major influence.) McKay is another filmmaker who, like Apatow, started in television (SNL specifically) and is known for comedy, though he tried to push beyond that niche in the last ten years. However much I disdain most of his movies that I’ve seen, I think it’s true that McKay, like Apatow, has been extremely influential in shaping the fashion of comedy as writer, producer, and trendsetter. A similar argument should be made for Feig. Apatow, McKay, and Feig are arguably the most influential directors in mainstream American comedy in the last twenty years. I wouldn’t make any of them my top pick, but I suspect that there are a few people out there who could make a pretty persuasive argument for any of them.
The biggest name, though, has got to be Whedon. Every film on which he is credited as director within the last ten years—save for his fine adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (2012)—is a Marvel or DC crossover event. The fact that he wrote and directed the first two Avengers films might be enough to make him a serious contender for the top slot (and the fact that he stepped in to take over Justice League from Snyder might be enough to remove him from contention). But he’s been directing television—most notably in his landmark series Buffy the Vampire Slayer—since the 1990s, often in stylistically interesting ways. His feature film debut was Serenity (2005), which was a sequel/send-off to his cult TV series, Firefly. I’m sympathetic to the argument that the actual feature films Whedon has directed are not among the greats, especially if one is antipathetic to Disney’s corporate takeover of mass culture in toto.
But I think 2012’s The Avengers is one of the most important films made this last decade, in addition to being a classic example of blockbuster filmmaking. The MCU’s worldwide dominance of entertainment in all platforms, culminating in Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, would not have been possible had not Avengers stuck the landing at the end of Phase I. (By the by, the directors of Endgame, Joe and Anthony Russo, also made their feature film debut in the 2000s, in part because their first feature was not theatrically released in 1997.) You can credit Kevin Feige and the corporate infrastructure of Disney/Marvel for a lot of that. But you should also credit Whedon, whose entire career is defined by navigating transitions between media as a writer and creator.
It’s a career pattern that will likely become increasingly common, if directors like David Fincher (see: House of Cards, Mindhunters) are any indication. That kind of career path is characteristic of any number of directors we’ve already mentioned, including Abrams, Apatow, McKay, Snyder, McG, Feig, Baker, as well as ones we haven’t mentioned, like Abrams’s frequent collaborator, Matt Reeves, or Whedon’s frequent collaborator, Drew Goddard.
Last, but not least, Patty Jenkins directed one feature film, Monster (2003) that made a pretty big splash, especially boosting the profile of Charlize Theron. After that, she moved into television directing for the next decade and a half, re-emerging to take on another major superhero franchise with Wonder Woman (2017). It would not surprise me if Jenkins were to emerge as one of the most significant figures who got her start in the Aughts, not just as a female director, but as one of the artists responsible for revitalizing superhero blockbusters just as they hit their saturation point. If Wonder Woman 1984 strikes gold, she’ll have the clout to do whatever she wants, and we’ll see what she does with it.
In short, the major directors that make a feature film debut in any given decade are likely to have significant amounts of their most significant work be on television, streaming services, or other digital media. Whedon is emblematic of that, which is why I’d put him in the running for the top slot.
What’s weird to me about the discussion in The Big Picture is that the three of them actually spent quite a bit of time discussing the cross-fertilization of film and TV elsewhere in the podcast. It’s clear that Dobbins and Fennessey respect and have given critical attention to Esmail’s own work as a director, and that he’s very much in conversation with his personal pantheon in the filmmaking he practices. So it’s not like this wasn’t something on their minds in the discussion; a lot of the points I just made are actually points that Dobbins, Fennessey, and Esmail made in the podcast. Given the articulate conversation they had about the film/tv dialectic, it strikes me as particularly odd that this was not a major factor in their assessment of the directors who made their debuts in the 2000s.
The hosts on The Big Picture also did not adequately address animation as a cinematic art form. My guess (and it’s only a guess; I only just started listening to the podcast) is that these folks are not particular fans of animated films. Which is fine, I guess. But it means that they’re not paying attention to someone like Pete Docter, whose first feature film credit as director is Monsters, Inc. (2001). Along with Andrew Stanton (who debuted with A Bug’s Life in 1998) and Brad Bird (who debuted with The Iron Giant in 1999), Docter is probably one of Pixar’s most distinct voices, having also directed Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015). This is another case where one might credit the corporate body as being more significant than the individual voice, but my impression is that Pixar does really well at cultivating individual voices and giving them a chance to produce their strongest possible work. If one is grading on the strength of all the films produced, Docter would seem to have a strong track record.
One of the most glaring omissions is Makoto Shinkai. Again, if we are considering consistency of output, how does one argue with the quality of his feature films? I’ve only seen a few: The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004), 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), and Your Name (2016), which became the highest-grossing anime of all time, and which was replaced as the highest-grossing anime of all time by Shinkai’s next film, Weathering with You (2019). Mamoru Hosoda is another anime director who has consistently produced outstanding work, not least of which was Mirai (2018), but whose 2006 feature, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, is maybe his most widely seen outside of Japan. (His debut feature was Digimon: The Movie (2000), co-directed with Shigeyasu Yamauchi.)
As with any discussion of this sort, the omissions and inclusions are usually circumscribed by the predilections and experiences of the people setting the terms of the discussion. It’s inevitable. No professional critic, let alone an amateur like me, has seen every movie ever made. But I think the exclusion of animation from the discussion was a bit shocking, since it’s impossible to ignore the existence of at least the major American producers of animated entertainment, like Disney or maybe Dreamworks, and there wasn’t even any question of it in the podcast discussion.
Leaving animators out of the discussion neglects the stature of animation in the global market. I get that anime doesn’t have the same kind of international penetration as Hollywood’s animated family entertainment, but of all the national cinemas, I think anime has uniquely carved out a fan base around the world that opens up space for movies like Your Name or Ghibli releases to make a mark. Shinkai in particular might be single most important anime creator since Hayao Mizayaki or Hideaki Anno in terms of redefining anime’s stature in his own country and maybe internationally. Along with Whedon, that puts Shinkai in the running for my top slot.
As is often the case, I think that this blindness to anime is of a piece with a general bias toward English-language filmmakers. (And I admit that it’s a bias/blindness I share.) The vast majority of Fennessey’s shortlist is comprised of English, American, Canadian, or Australian directors. The most glaring omission to me was Martel. I don’t know if that’s because her debut feature, La Ciénaga (2001) somehow won the NHK Award at 1999’s Sundance Film Festival, thus disqualifying her from the 2000s. Maybe. I haven’t seen that film, and I wasn’t the hugest fan of The Holy Girl (2004). Nor did I quite know what to make of The Headless Woman (2008) when I saw it, but I chalked that up to ignorance of Argentine history and culture; it was a formidable filmmaking performance in any case. What I think puts Martel into the running for the top slot is 2017’s Zama, which is about as perfectly-calibrated as a movie gets. I still haven’t figured out how to write about it, but the hype around it is well-deserved; it might be one of The Greats.
Among international directors who have a lot of critical heat around them, it surprised me that Lanthimos, Puiu, and Mungiu weren’t part of Fennessey’s shortlist. I wasn’t a fan of Dogtooth, but I liked The Favourite pretty well. Of the Romanian New Wave, I’ve only seen two films, but 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a masterpiece.
A lot of the other directors in my extended shortlist are (I felt) worth mentioning, but not really contenders. Clooney had an incredible decade as a star, writer, director, and producer, but I don’t think he’s sustained it, though there’s no denying the mojo he conjured at his peak. Green is another one of those auteurs wending his way betwixt film and television, but his output has been pretty uneven, despite some real highlights. We can thank mumblecore directors like Swanberg and Bujalski for a number of really strong films, but I suspect that history will remember mumblecore more for fostering the career of Greta Gerwig more than for the actual films that came out of it. Three of the directors in my shortlist are near-contenders mostly because each of them made a single film that is itself one of the best of the decade: Mitchell for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Carruth for Primer (2004), and Dominik for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).
For what it’s worth, I actually think Esmail and Fennessey are probably right to pick Bong Joon-ho as the most important filmmaker to make his debut during the 2000s, if only because seemingly every film he makes is unbelievably good. I wonder to what degree he will influence (or has influenced) the next generation of filmmakers. My own top ten short-shortlist would certainly include him, as you can see:
I haven’t seen any of the films by Sean Baker or Barry Jenkins, and I still have a few films to see by Dominik, Chazelle, and Glazer before I pass final judgment on them. As for Black, I have enjoyed every film he’s directed so far. Yes, that includes Iron Man 3 (2013), and I enjoyed what he tried to do with The Predator (2018), even if it didn’t hold together. But Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys (2016) are among the best buddy flicks I’ve seen. Clooney seems like someone who might claw his way back to the top of the heap before his career is over, so we’ll see if he can regain the clout he commanded in the Aughts; if he does, I’ll have to revise my list. Finally, I’m curious to see if the Russo brothers can translate the chops they’ve honed in the last twenty years into something more than being the reliable hired guns who ushered the MCU’s first ten years to an insanely lucrative conclusion. We’ll see.
The big difference between the 90s greats and the greats of the Aughts, I think, has more to do with paradigms than with merit. Quentin Tarantino, P. T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppola, and Nancy Meyers (who all got top marks from the Big Picture podcasters) all fit really neatly into what critics and cinephiles love about auteurism. Each has an identifiable signature that often manifests in recurrent stylistic motifs or thematic concerns. That’s true of all the directors I included in my top ten, too, of course. But I think the aura of the 90s crop of filmmakers conveys upon them a much more self-conscious effort on the part of critics and the directors themselves to make films that ensconce them among The Greats. I’m not sure that’s true of a lot of the notable or great filmmakers of the Aughts generation.
I use “aura” in a quasi-Benjaminian sense. I think that the reception and near-instant canonization of these filmmakers is part of how we (that is, cinephiles and critics) frame our responses to them. And the 90s filmmakers have been keen to capitalize on that. I don’t know if any director in the history of cinema has done quite as much to frame his own filmography as Quentin Tarantino, and I strongly suspect that Paul Thomas Anderson calibrates his selection of projects between the two poles of his own muse and the demands of continuing to live up to (and exceed) critical expectations with every new film. Directors who made their bones in the 90s are people who imbibed their lessons from the film school brats of the 1960s and 70s. Especially among some of the male filmmakers, there’s a palpable sense of each of them striving to be their class’s valedictorian. All of that feeds into the aura around each of them as well as the nimbus of being a “90s” filmmaker.
I’m not sure that the same is true of a majority of the great directors who made their first mark in the Aughts. Some, like Johnson, are keenly aware of their cinematic lineage and parlay it into clout so that they can make the movies they want to make. But I don’t feel like the same aura clings to Bong or Martel. Whedon seems sincerely committed to telling stories he would enjoy reading or seeing, to his politics, and to his fans. He doesn’t seem to be competing with the weight of film history in the same way as perfectionists like QT or David Fincher. It seems to me that a lot of the Aughts crop of directors is trying to make Great Films more than trying to make films that put them among The Great Auteurs.
Again: this has more to do with aura than the intent of the artists themselves. I think that the way we think about 90s filmmakers is a bit clouded by the aura I described, and I think that the aura of the Aughts directors is one characterized by a sense that it is a decade of afterglow: pleasant, warm, thrilling in its own way, but not the same intense, exciting, productive explosion that the 90s seemed to be.
This infection of the conversation with the 90s aura isn’t entirely fair, and I don’t think it’s an accurate assessment of the overall quality of the directors who made their feature film debuts in the 2000s. If we can’t get excited by a decade that produced or fostered the film careers of Bong Joon-ho, Shinkai Makoto, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Rian Johnson, Joss Whedon, and the others, then I don’t think we’re really contending with what marks directors out for greatness. The Aughts was an incredible decade, and I think it stacks up against any other decade you’d care to invoke.
Ultimately, I think that the value of Esmail’s game is that is compels us to think about where and when some of our most notable auteurs got their start. But I think a game like this can sometimes become a vehicle for rehearsing the canon like a litany. Especially the closer we get to the present, I feel that it’s important to keep an eye on the artists who have made significant contributions and to think about how and why we articulate “significance.” I’ve probably undersold this, but I did love listening to the podcast episode where they argued about and broke down the great directors of the past several decades. There was some really good conversation, some wonderful insights, some amusing commentary, and some entertaining rhetorical gymnastics. It’s a great episode. My main contention is simply that by underplaying certain decades, we underplay the greatness of the artists who got their feature film starts there and we shortchange a consideration of significant developments that can only be framed productively by the timeframe of a decade. I guess I simply fail to comprehend that way of approaching these decades as markers of the many gifts given to us by the filmmakers who emerge in each of them. ☕︎