2005: Best Director

Before I get to my Top 10, I wanted to give a most honorable mention to Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, and his film 3-IRON. The film is an odd love triangle where the three main characters never speak. He wrote the film in a month, shot it in 16 days and finished editing it in another 10. The end result is a very interesting curiosity, and Kim’s direction is poetic as he fearlessly takes the story into some very odd places.

10. Christopher Nolan – BATMAN BEGINS
Nolan went from the indie MEMENTO, to the modest INSOMNIA and then helmed the megabudget BATMAN BEGINS. Nolan made the leap without losing his sharp intellect and smooth professionalism. He balanced spectacular summer action set pieces with story and character moments that were equally compelling. And he wisely decided to cast the film with some of the best actors in the business.

9. Francis Lawrence – CONSTANTINE
One of the most well-crafted cinematic debuts, Lawrence took Grade-B pulp and gave it Grade-A class. The sound, image, production design and special effects were all cherry, and he never resorted to the extra flash that bring down so many music video directors. CONSTANTINE shows someone with the potential to be the next Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro or even David Fincher.

8. Steven Spielberg – MUNICH
Like Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION, MUNICH is probably the quietest great film Spielberg will make. It will become more appreciated with age, and when they close the books on Spielberg’s life, his direction will stand alongside CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Of all the directors on this list, Spielberg is the one whose acclaim you probably won’t understand while you watch his movie. But MUNICH will join GLORY as one of the great, underappreciated films of my generation.

7. Noah Baumbach – THE SQUID AND THE WHALE
No flashy camerawork. No brilliant framing. Baumbach tunnels deep inside a family torn into emotional confusion, and he puts you right in the thick of it. Scene after scene, the tone is clean and clear and the overall impact is both majestic and quietly heartbreaking. The film wasn’t joyous, yet I didn’t want it to end.

6. Peter Jackson – KING KONG
The antithesis of Baumbach, Peter Jackson’s direction was a couple of notches up from epic, with some beautiful moments of grand poetry, and some of the most spectacular adventure sequences ever put on film. If he had cut the film down and given the final hour an less morose tone, Jackson would have easily ranked higher on my list. The highlights here are better than anything else in 2005, and the Kong vs. Dino scene is the most exciting cinema since Indiana Jones chased after the Lost Ark.

5. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller – SIN CITY
Rodriguez made the brilliant decision to adapt cinema to suit Frank Miller’s comics, rather than the other way around. He brought the creator along, and delivered the year’s most breakthrough piece of cinema. Here’s a film that BENEFITS from being shot digitally, allowing Rodriguez to better control the lighting and effects. Meanwhile, Miller used the deep knowledge he had for his characters to guide some big name actors into great performances.

The script was delicate and nuanced. The cast was ready to go. But Ang Lee brought all the elements together to create one of the year’s most emotionally powerful films. You want to know what great directing is? Watch the two Thanksgiving scenes. They’re wholly superfluous to the story, but what they say about the characters, and how quietly yet effectively they say it, speaks volumes.

I also want to point out a careful bit of editing towards the end of the film. (Non-spoiler, I promise.) Heath Ledger is on the phone listening to Anne Hathaway. There’s an inserted shot to another event. Is it the truth? Is it the imagination of one of the characters? Lee never says, and he’s so confident that he knows he doesn’t have to. The audience can interpret the shot however they want to. That’s gutsy, artistic and just plain brilliant.

3. Fernando Meirelles – THE CONSTANT GARDENER
Meirelles took a typical political thriller, and came at it from a completely unexpected angle. Had he focused on the thriller than GARDENER would have been just another revenge picture. Meirelles approached the material from the angle of two people deeply in love. The husband passively tends to gardens while his wife rages against the world machine. After she is murdered, he digs into her past looking for the murderer.

Fairly standard revenge scenario, but through Meirelles directing the investigation deepens the husbands love for his deceased wife. His revelations are no longer clues in a murder investigation, but personal secrets that raise the emotional stakes considerably.

As if that wasn’t enough, Meirelles also has one of the best cinematic eyes in the business and his use of color makes other films look drab in comparison. This camerawork is often as beautiful as it is shaky, and I didn’t think that was possible.

2. Wong Kar Wai – 2046
Wong Kar Wai gathers his cast and begins production when is film is still just in the idea phase. Through production, he finds the story, and he keeps filming until his vision is complete and coherent. (2046 was filmed over 5 years.) Wai’s deeply romantic mood piece is full of hopeful characters, even though the powerful forces of love will always control their emotional destiny.
His movies are also dazzling just to look at, with each frame a living painting that beats with a powerful heart. He’s one of the few directors that spends the time getting the clothes, the architecture and the colors just right without losing the thread of his story.

If you’ve never seen a Wong Kar Wai film, I’d actually suggest starting with CHUNKING EXPRESS or IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (which directly connects to the themes 2046 in surprising ways). His vision is so unique (yet not remote) that starting with 2046 would be jumping into the very deep end of the pool. Once you’re used to his rhythms, you’ll see that 2046 is his magnum opus.

No contest, Chan-wook Park is the filmmaking discovery of 2005. He’s sometimes called the Korean David Fincher. Now, Fincher is my favorite director and I fully agree with this label. He’s made 4 movies. I’ve seen the first 3. (LADY VENGEANCE opens later this year.) The first one, JOINT SECURITY AREA is an excellent military drama, but it’s nowhere near as great as the two films that followed.
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE tells intertwining stories of revenge. In the revenge genre, this is the emotional equal of SCHINDLER’S LIST. There’s a fair amount of set up as bad things happen to good people. In the 2nd half, when it all goes downhill, Park doesn’t flinch from the terrible events. Not for a moment. He doesn’t wallow in the misery, but some of the moments are hard to watch because we care about everyone, yet we understand why bad things are happening. Everything is so expertly handled, I was firmly locked in Park’s directorial grasp. This is the kind of great film that will emotionally knock the wind out of you.
OLDBOY is a more unique take on revenge, which asks tough questions about whether the punishment can ever properly fit the crime. The tone is much more stylized here, but the flashier sequences aren’t nearly as interesting as the overall mystery and the way Park slowly reveals it.
Having said that, I want to point out that the film contains an amazing 3-minute fight scene done with no edits. (How do you choreograph that?) There’s also the unforgettable moment where our lead character, looking to eat something very fresh, is handed a live squid. Park’s shots are more uniquely composed in OLDBOY, but he never lets the flash or the heady ideas overrun the film’s humanity.


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