Andrew Bujalski - Funny Ha Ha
Bujalski's debut effort in 2002 may not herald a new era of filmaking, and the the comparisons to Cassavetes have waned, but anyone who can create a film this close to real life has done something extraordinary. When the vast majority of your movie consists of people sitting around and talking, the director's job becomes harder, not easier. Quick cuts and reverse pans were not going to work for the kitchen table at Marnie's either; Bujalski somehow managed to find a style and rhythm in between long artistic shots and the all-too-common handheld camera that cannot be categorized.
Andrew Dominik - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I'm glad I saw The Assassination before seeing Dominik's debut feature Chopper. While the latter is exactly the kind of stylized crime and violence pic that directors seem to make as a calling card, The Assassination was like nothing I'd ever seen before; contemplative, violent, plodding, just fucking strange. Part of this has to do with Robert Ford being an infinitely more interesting character than Mark "Chopper" Read, the (somehow!) boring sociopath/criminal/vigilante from Dominik's 2000 cult hit. But more importantly, Domminik managed to extend his movie to 160 minutes, allowing multiple side plots, characters, and tensions to develop. I know Sean is a big fan of the short movie, but anytime there are real characters at the center of a story, it has to be this long. You need to be able to get into these characters and have time for events to happen that are not part of the plot (for example, Breach could have been a phenomenal movie had it lasted 30 minutes longer). Even decisions that seemed wrong at the time - the narration, the weird music - still linger. Since I won't be staying up to watch the Oscars this year, I may just watch the best movie released in 2007 instead.
David Fincher - Zodiac
Another data point for the argument for long movies. Fincher's tale of a real-life serial murderer is almost the exact opposite of his earlier Se7en. Instead of taking the conventional crime route, where clues and leads build towards a climactic finish, Zodiac starts off with what turns out to be the climax and then slowly unwinds for the next two and half hours, as the movie's focus shifts from the killer to the investigators, and slasher violence and suspense turn to character studies and resignation. I wouldn't be surprised if the movie disappointed a lot of people, but I'm happy that this movie wasn't edited down to a lean 100 minutes. It takes time to get to know all of the characters in the sprawling investigation, and without caring about them, the movie would have lost it's purpose. Fincher's best work.
Jean-Pierre Melville - Army of Shadows
Now this is suspense. Melville is a master and building tension with few cuts and no music, and his style is perfect for the paranoia of Army of Shadows. I really am not sure why so few directors take this route (the Coens being a rather notable exception), but when the director puts less of himself into a film, the audience is forced to do some work, and the fantasies and expectations of an uncertain audience will always surpass what a writer can come up with. Just like the best horror is unseen, the best suspense is subtle, as when it dawns on the viewer that Phillipe is going to have to kill a traitor without using his gun. Similarly, loyalties are always uncertain because there is no creepy music playing or almost any overt foreshadowing; the realizations of duplicity hits us the way it hits the characters, out of the blue.
And the winner is...
Béla Tarr - Werkmeister Harmonies
Another category, another win for Werkmeister. I've mentioned Tarr enough so that I don't have to go into detail here, but the guy is just beautiful. Other than possibly Lynch, I can't think of another director I like whose films are art first, art second, art third, and maybe a little entertainment fourth. Most artistic directors tend to be avant-garde and almost unwatchable, but Tarr's films are more like paintings than what's playing at the local cineplex or "art" house. Sure there are character and plot, but I just can't take my eye off of the screen in this movie, and I remember scenes the way I remember great paintings...they are not just in your mind's eye, but when you picture them, you feel them too, so indelible the initial image. It's not so much unfair to compare him to other directors as it is pointless; he is just doing something entirely different.