Brad Bird – The Iron Giant
I missed Bird’s animated masterpiece the last time it was on the big screen so the rerelease this year was a chance for me to finally see it, after loving it on the small screen, on the big screen. Bird has a masterful hand with visuals; the hand drawn animation is nothing short of beautiful and Bird is able to get compelling performances and beautiful atmospheres on screen.
Park Chan-wook – Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is another masterpiece from Korean auteur Chan-wook; his tale of vengeance is directed with a surprising amount of brio. This film is every bit as grim as Oldboy, if not more so, but visually it’s a beautiful and exuberant experience. Chan-wook pulls off magical realism and flashbacks with as much brilliance as they’ve ever been handled by anyone. And even as the subject matter gets darker and darker, the visuals retain their stunning beauty.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon – Me & Earl & the Dying Girl
Gomez-Rejon infuses his tale of a dying girl and her newfound friendship with the narrator with humor, wit and beauty. Gomez-Rejon commits entirely to the meta nature of the film and the way the story unfolds as a narrated story is brilliant; speaking of magical realism, Gomez-Rejon does a great job with that here as well – you’ll never forget the superhero cameo. And when the film calls for transcendent beauty, Gomez-Rejon knows when to strip out the dialogue and let the visuals and music speak for themselves.
Akira Kurosawa – The Hidden Fortress
Kurosawa first used the widescreen format in this epic adventure from 1958, but he’s already a master. The action scenes are thrilling and exciting, particularly a magnificent duel with lances that is the perfect utilization of the widescreen. But opening up the field of the camera gives Kurosawa the chance to experiment with everything about framing. The visuals here are wonderful.
Justin Kurzel – Macbeth
Kurzel’s stripped down take on Macbeth could almost be a silent film, so adept is Kurzel at communicating the iconic story through visuals and music. It’s a film starkly beautiful and incredibly atmospheric. The film is more than just a filmed play; Kurzel has taken this play and planted it firmly in a gorgeous, terrifying and compelling world. It’s nothing less than a tour de force.
Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher
Miller’s minimal style works to perfection here. His camera rarely draws attention to itself, but his framing is magnificent and Miller finds the quiet stillnesses that really make the film work. It’s the shots with no words that you’ll remember, the shots that paint a frightening isolation. It’s a beautiful movie.
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Well, whatever else can be said about George Miller, he’s no Bennett Miller. Minimal isn’t a word in his vocabulary. Miller’s insane vision for this film is a recipe for brilliance, if done right, and Miller does it absolutely right. The film is essentially a two hour chase sequence and Miller’s direction of the action here is nothing less than superb. He packs the film with visuals unlike anything the audience has ever seen before, strange, alien landscapes, towering storms, insane stunts, heart-pounding action and unsettling visions. When film snobs start rattling on pretentiously, remind them of this movie, the perfect marriage of auteur cinema and knock-out action flick.
David Robert Mitchell – It Follows
If the conceit of this film is going to work, it’s down to the director. A malevolent force stalks our heroine through the entire film (almost), a force that appears in various forms. It’s all in the way Mitchell portrays this evil entity. And he does so to perfection, with unsettlingly strange visuals and depictions. His camera roves constantly, keeping us aware of the danger that might come from any direction at any time. It’s a gripping horror experience for a lot of reasons; Mitchell’s sure direction is one of them.
Kornel Mundruczo – White God
In this astounding film about a girl and her lost dog searching for each other, Mundruczo has two serious feats: directing a young child and directing animals. But he does it perfectly, getting performances unlike anything I’ve ever seen. If the synopsis above seems tame, the film isn’t; it’s a gut-wrenching parade of cruelties and through them all, the main character is portrayed by two dogs. And I’ve never seen an animal performance like this. I’m unsure of what Mundruczo might have done to get the performance he gets out of these animals, but I’ll put it down to him as director. And his eye for visuals is equally strong; one need look no farther than the final shot (I suppose you can’t really go farther than the final shot, can you?), one of the most beautifully composed images I saw all year.
Steven Spielberg – Jaws
Rewatching this film on the big screen this year wasn’t revelatory exactly, but it was confirmatory. Still in his twenties, Spielberg creates a masterpiece of visual style. It’s cliché to talk about the way the shark is portrayed, but it’s still true. And then Spielberg is able to strand three characters on a single boat for almost an hour and keep it claustrophobic, thrilling and always visually interesting. But it’s even more than that; Spielberg has the sense to stage conversation scenes in striking ways. What another director might have put in an office, Spielberg puts on a ferry; he dares to let star Richard Dreyfuss bounce in and out of frame in a confrontation with Mayor Vaughan. It’s really quite unbelievable, now that I’m in my thirties to imagine a man in his late twenties being capable of creating this movie. But at something like twenty-eight, Spielberg wasn’t just a good filmmaker, he was a great director – at twenty-eight, he was already in the canon.