1985: Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino)
If being a great director means making people feel good about themselves or providing a sort of fantasy American dream then Cimino is not very good at all. But if being a great director means using a camera to tell a story and using a frame in as dynamic a way as possible then Cimino is a master.
It's been years since I've seen this film. But off the top of my head I can already recall at least three scenes that are masterfully directed: a nightclub shootout, the moment following a home invasion, and the final set piece. When I say masterful direction, I mean perfect shot selection, purposeful and expressive camera movement, specific editing, and all done in a way where as a viewer we always understand the geography of the scene.
I don't mean to sell Cimino short by suggesting that this film is all a cold, technical enterprise. In fact, I feel quite strongly about Rourke's character, and the second moment I reference above is particularly devastating.
A flawed film, certainly. But when it's clicking, it's crime elevated to the same operatic and cinematic heights as Coppola's work in The Godfather films. A movie that seems to have exercised a major influence on the cinema of Michael Mann and an important link to King of New York, Carlito's Way, and other modern crime films. Also, a film and an auteur, as much as anyone in this countdown, quite desperately in need of re-evaluation.
Other contenders for 1985: I still have some things to see from this year. These include: George Romero's Day of the Dead, Agnes Varda's Vagabond, Atom Egoyan's Next of Kin, Jane Campion's Passionless Moments, Hou Hsiao-hsien's A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Edward Yang's Taipei Story, Paul Schrader's Mishima, Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief, Elem Klimov's Come and See, Jean-Luc Godard's Detective, and Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog. I need to revisit Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future as it's been too long since I've seen it to know where it'd place on this list. But from this year I really like Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Martin Scorsese's After Hours, and Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette. And my closest runner-up is Maurice Pialat's Police.
10/19/10 I watched Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog. Sentimental and almost always looking to be likable. But also with some nice heartfelt and a few inventive moments. Overall not really my thing.
3/28/11 I watched Wim Wenders' Tokyo-Ga. This exploration almost feels like a Godard or Marker essay. An unorthodox, somewhat meandering doc that seems like essential viewing for any strong fan of Ozu's work. Wenders mourns cinema's loss of one of its most special practitioners. Using Ozu's favorite city, Tokyo, as his lens to look at how the world has changed since Ozu's disapperance, Wenders also spends significant time with some of Ozu's closest collaborators.
4/19/11 I watched Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. This abstract, highly stylized oddity actually is one of the more interesting films I've seen from Schrader. At times, it is almost too obtuse, but there is also something here that feels quite personal. And it's the most cinematic of the Schrader-directed films that I've seen. The actor playing the adult Mishima is quite powerful, and Philip Glass's score, though in typical Glass fashion repetitive, also binds it all together into a successfully surreal, cerebral, and intermittently visceral work.
8/30/11 I watched Elem Klimov's Come and See. A harrowing, unflinching, and frenetic film about the horrors of war. Klimov's camera is impressively mobile. The film just felt so full of rage though that it is hard to take in.