In Conversation: Best and Worst Directors

Though we’re stuck inside and unable to go see new films in the cinema, it doesn’t mean discussion of film has to stop. Every week, Kern, Henry, and the occasional special guest will discuss some film related topic that’s been on our minds and transcribe our conversation here.

Kern: I wanted to start this off with a question I’ve had trouble answering myself over the past couple years: who is your favorite director, and what makes them your favorite?

Henry: The first part of that is easy (well, easier than the second part at least). Ingmar Bergman is my favorite. As for why, in some way, it’s because I felt like it was time for a change. For a couple years, I’d been saying Soderbergh was my favorite, and of course he’s still great and remains my favorite living director, but in that time, I explored many more films from many more directors and began to see other things that I enjoyed. Bergman has an undeniable influence on so many films that came after him and that sort of presence in everything came to make me respect him more and appreciate why it was that when he did certain things in his films, they were so impactful and original. The Criterion box also played a big part in this as it gave me a way to watch a significant portion of his work while gaining insights from the essays and features that I haven’t had in that sort of depth with any other director. I’ve probably seen more Bergman films than films from any other filmmaker and his diversity of styles and thematic content and the sheer number of masterpieces he created are essentially unmatched in my mind so he was the clear choice. As fate would have it, it was only nine days after I decided to call him my favorite director that we both met Soderbergh and I began to question my new choice but I’m still pretty set.

Have you stolen my answer for favorite director again or are you cycled around to someone new at this point?

Kern: Yep. For now at least, I’ve stolen Soderbergh. For years I went with the Dardenne brothers, because their style exudes empathy (ironically my choice prior to them was Michael Haneke, arguably the polar opposite) and I’m astounded by their craft. But I felt a distinct lack of variety to their work, so I sought out exploring other filmmakers with more diverse filmographies (Assayas, currently digging deeper into Kiarostami). I’ve always been a massive Soderbergh fan since I was young, but finishing his filmography, revisiting older ones I hadn’t seen in years/decades, and listening to all the director commentaries I could get my hands on really gave me an insight that solidified him as my (current) choice.

When it comes to Bergman, do you find a consistency to his work? Because that’s the biggest drawback to him for me. Though I think he has a few films I’d put in my all time favorites, there are just as many, if not more that I would be fine never revisiting

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Henry: He has a few different modes of filmmaking and each one of course has stronger films and weaker films but in many cases he was building up to the best work through a few missteps and seeing the complete picture just makes the major works more impactful while most of his lesser films are from early in his career when I don’t think he’d quite figured it all out so I don’t fault him so much. I don’t think there’s any director I consider great that doesn’t have a pretty massive disparity in the quality of their works if they’ve made more than a handful of films and Bergman is no exception. I would say Soderbergh is the same way and, though I suppose his films are often easier to revisit because they aren’t as full of the often draining existential dread that Bergmans have so often, there’s certainly ones that I don’t like nearly as much as others and I’d assume you feel the same.

Kern: Totally. Soderbergh has some duds, and my average score for his filmography probably is lower than Haneke or the Dardennes, but I admire his ambition in tackling different genres and how he applies his style to blockbusters as well as smaller independent films. I’m really intrigued by how a filmmaker evolves over their career and value a varied filmography over consistency, otherwise I’d put Céline Sciamma near the top of my list of favorite filmmakers, because my average score for her work is much higher than Soderbergh’s. I mentioned before that I’m looking to dig deeper into Kiarostami’s filmography, and I’m also planning on watching all of Rohmer’s work once I get my hands on the Criterion box set of his Six Moral Tales next month. Do you have any filmmakers you’re looking to explore in the future that you could see possibly dethroning Bergman as your favorite?

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Henry:I’m planning to go through a bunch from Kurosawa and Fellini in the near future and I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from both so far and Fellini directed my favorite film so I suppose either taking his place would be possible but unlikely. Other than them, I probably won’t be trying to dive into any directors that have extensive filmographies and I think it’s pretty hard to call any director my favorite when they only have a handful of films because there just isn’t the range there that I’m looking for or the kind of commitment to them that I have to have for watching every Bergman film that in itself leads to a greater appreciation.

Kern: What about your least favorite director? I know you dislike almost every Aronofsky film to some degree, but would he be your absolute least favorite?

Henry: Though Miller made the film I hate the most, he has some decent work too so I don’t think I could say he’s my least favorite and the same goes for a lot of the folks who have films scraping the bottom of the barrel. The only director who could possibly have a claim to least favorite besides Aronofsky would be Oliver Stone, who’s films I consistently strongly dislike due to an often extreme bluntness and repeated failure to even begin to tackle the ideas he tries to examine. An important subject does not necessarily make an important film and he never seems to realize that. But even Stone has a few that I enjoy, albeit generally to a fairly limited extent. The best Aronofsky has done is to make a film I don’t dislike but wouldn’t say is good either and the worst is some of my all time most hated films. So yeah, I think it would be fair to say he’s my absolute least favorite. He has that absolute nails on a chalkboard feeling in every one of his films that really just taps into all the things I can’t stand. All exercises in misery that take such pride in their supposed importance and artistic merit despite being lacking in both while being chock full of stylistic trappings that do more to distract from the larger film than to reinforce it. Even when a director has a bunch of misfires, I’m usually willing to give them another chance and hope for the best but having seen all of his films and felt the way I do about all of them, I think I’ll have to make an exception and skip whatever he does next.

Your least favorite however, despite turning in a number of stinkers and only a couple that I even sort of enjoy, is one that I consistently show up for and will continue to watch in the future.

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Kern:Perfect. I’ll get the tickets, you get the drinks, then. (I assume you’ll bring liquor to dull the pain.) But yes my least favorite filmmaker is Tim Burton, who has remained my least favorite director for a very long time. There’s just something about his Gothic aesthetic and gloomy sensibilities that never fail to nauseate me. It’s strange because as a child, I really liked his Batman films. I attribute it more to my obsession with the character overall, but I still watched those first two Batman films more times than I can count. Somewhere down the line, I completely turned on him. I would probably guess it was somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (both of which I regretfully saw in theaters). The whole dark, twisted, and grotesque vibe to all his work just feels like a hollow put-on, like an edgy Hot Topic-clad teenager who expresses their inner pain through trite poetry on notebook paper, doodling whimsically distorted characters in the margins. Of course, once people knew how much I hated Burton, they exploited it when I was doing the twitter lottery assignments, so I recently had to watch a few I had skipped that ended up being less painful, but overall, I think I’d be better off never having to endure another one of his films.

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Henry: I guess this about wraps up our discussion for today. We’ll be back next week to talk about anime and hopefully one day soon we’ll see you all at the movies!


In Conversation

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