The idea was simplicity itself: Who would matter in the next movie century? Not in terms of power lists or box-office returns — the noisome distractions the machine insists are paramount — but in the essential reality of film. By way of example: Although Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have been the most influential American directors of the past three decades, it’s arguable that only Spielberg will continue to shape our native cinema. In spite of — perhaps because of his mediocrity — Spielberg will matter to American film in ways Scorsese will not. For while both are visionaries, only one man has absorbed the logic of the industry he works in. Spielberg, in other words, is a true believer, while Scorsese remains, to his credit and his undoing, a doubter, an agnostic, an outsider. All of which doesn‘t mean that his greatest work isn’t ahead of him — though only if he continues to challenge himself, as he did with Kundun — but that these new films will never matter the way Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull have. That, crudely put, is what we were getting at when we asked who would matter in the next movie century, albeit with an eye toward world cinema, not just American. The idea seemed simplicity itself; as to be expected, our choices were anything but. – -Manohla Dargis
When Entertainment Weekly declared Irma Vep — Olivier Assayas‘ rapturous meditation on movie-love, star worship, cultural appropriation and the filmmaking process — an example of the ways in which recent French cinema “sucks,” you knew the director must be doing something, probably many things, just right. A single step in the director’s ongoing exploration of the ways popular culture and individual emotional lives become helplessly interwoven, Irma Vep may be Assayas‘ best-known film, but his continuing importance to film culture extends well beyond it. Take, for example, 1997’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien, a lovingly crafted study of the Taiwanese filmmaker who was recently recognized, in the pages of Film Comment and elsewhere, as one of the most important directors of the last decade. Hou has yet to have a single one of his films picked up for U.S. distribution, but he suffers no similar lack of recognition in France, where, on the heels of Assayas‘ documentary, his 1998 masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai became one of the highest-grossing Asian films ever exhibited in France. In the “suck”-dom of French cinema, where psychologically engaging, emotionally complex and vibrantly cinephilic filmmaking still reigns supreme, Assayas — writer, director, film lover — remains in the center of the vortex. –Chuck Stephens
It was tragic and unbearably poignant that Robert Bresson died in the last month of the Movie Century. He was born in 1901, even as the movies themselves were still being born. Raised in a bourgeois French family, he directed his first film, Les Affaires Publiques, in 1934, a short musical that until recently was believed lost. He subsequently made 13 others — they are, simply, some of the greatest films in the history of cinema. Last May, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art paid tribute to the director with a retrospective that originated at the Cinematheque Ontario. I count as one of my more thrilling moviegoing experiences the image of Angelenos literally racing up the museum stairs to make a rare screening of Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar. Francois Truffaut once wrote about Bresson‘s 1956 film A Man Escaped, “To think that Bresson will be an influence on French and foreign contemporary filmmakers seems highly unlikely. Nonetheless, we clearly see the limitations of the other cinema to the advantage of this film.” The same could be said for each of his films. Years later, it still seems unlikely that Bresson will cast a shadow, save for the fact that without his vision, cinema would be nothing. –M.D.
MICHAEL CIMINO and ROMAN POLANSKI
Both men are among the most talented to have worked in Hollywood. Both have been lightning rods for controversy, to the extent that their achievements have been eclipsed. Neither artist is mentioned when purveyors of mass-market opinion such as Premiere tout their lists of the Top 100 whomevers. And yet, of the generation of filmmakers born adjacent to World War II, Cimino and Polanski will have the most to offer filmmakers who have yet to be born.
My championing of Cimino is complicated by friendship, but even so I’m confident of my objectivity: For 10 years prior to knowing him, I was an ardent partisan of The Deer Hunter, Heaven‘s Gate, Year of the Dragon and The Sicilian. Cimino’s great subject (one that has cost him with critics) is the mystery of aggression: the tragic law of life as he sees it, even the mainspring of love, the toxin dividing the world into upper and lower classes.“Fight long enough and you end up marrying the enemy” was a line cut from Year of the Dragon, and it can be felt, unstated, under his every film. As the gap between the world‘s haves and have-nots widens violently in the 21st century, Cimino’s vision will seem prophetic.
Polanski‘s film-sense and mastery — the force of his style, his ability to wring laughter out of the most degrading heartbreak — will carry the same wealth of healthy shocks in 100 years, and embody a macabre beauty to be wooed by, and wondered at. But a subtler, morally more vital element will also apply: the ghostly truth, which haunts his every film, that Polanski was orphaned by the Nazis and wandered Poland alone from ages 8 to 12. Consider the intensity of isolation that bridges Knife in the Water, Cul-de-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Death and the Maiden. In each, the omniscient viewpoint feels “childlike” in the least innocent sense: We listen and watch, ever wary. The truth of what‘s been hidden, or is being planned in secret, is always a matter of life and death; one’s survival (even within the playful confines of a fantasy) depends on not missing so much as a detail. Such will be true for more and more people in the century to come, be they orphans of Rwanda, Kosovo or wherever. It‘s easy to imagine that if they find their way to Polanski’s work, it will sing to them. –F.X. Feeney
No one films male bodies as beautifully as Claire Denis, or with such consummate tenderness. The French director has been setting her gaze on the male body since 1988‘s Chocolat, a film about desire and colonialism in West Africa with the beautiful Isaach de Bankole at its heart. Since then, Denis has gone on to create more films centered around male characters, black and white both, the complex likes of whom are rarely seen on screen — No Fear, No Die, I Can’t Sleep, Nenette et Boni. What‘s striking about these intently different, elliptical stories about men in the world, men in love and in trouble, is that no matter their emotional pitch or narrative force, in each the constant remains the director herself, a woman able to understand men from inside their own skin. That in itself is remarkable. What makes it revolutionary is that Denis is also one of the greatest filmmakers in the world — even if the world doesn’t yet know it. –M.D.
With only two very fine features under his belt (1995‘s Maborosi and 1999’s After Life), Kore-eda has already forged a powerful style, one of languid soulfulness. Both his films are meditations on grief and loss, and how we respond to them. Not only does he have a generosity of spirit that comes across onscreen, he trusts his audience to have an attention span longer than a gnat‘s. Maborosi opens inside a dream of abandonment, then keeps the audience wrapped in a hypnotic world that was filmed in warm, dark hues of brown, blue, gray and black. Dialogue is spare, and the camera lingers quietly in dark tunnels and lush, open spaces. It’s about the shattering effect of death on those left behind. After Life — starkly elegant in style — interprets heaven as the chance to live out eternity inside the happiest memory of one‘s life. The movies are evocative meldings of philosophy, poetry and cinema, resulting in a vision that is singular and potent. At a time when everyone is revving up about the digital and techno future of film, his work serves as a reminder of the power of stillness and introspection. –Ernest Hardy
Perched happily though he is on the lower brow of American culture, Harold Ramis has pegged more astutely than most the existential nightmare of having every day repeat exactly the one that went before it. There’s nothing more terrifying than the absence of history, which is one reason why we cover up the drone of everyday sameness with pomp and circumstance over the passing of decades, centuries and millennia. I hope that on December 31, 1999, a print of Groundhog Day (oh, and Ghostbusters, why not?) will be floated onto the Pacific in a sealed bottle for the delight of spaceballs eons hence. Either way, Ramis‘ affably goofy anthropology of strange American habits may prove more lasting than the punditry of many a heavier weight in our national cinema. –Ella Taylor
One small measure of whether enlightened humanism lives on into the next thousand years will be the durability of the films of Jean Renoir. This year’s re-release of the master‘s wise and wonderful war drama, Grand Illusion, is a hopeful sign that distributors trust the public to appreciate classical aesthetics, not to mention literate dialogue. Even now, I fear that outside of film schools (and perhaps inside them, where neither classicism nor literacy are exactly in vogue), the name Renoir conjures vague images of the filmmaker’s painter father. It was a tribute to the mid–20th century that Renoir‘s biggest commercial catastrophe and his most beautiful film, The Rules of the Game, was resuscitated and given its due as a masterpiece of civilizing philosophy. As the millennium turns, are we still capable of recognizing that today’s bottom-line flop may be tomorrow‘s work of art? Is there a filmmaker working today who articulates with the same conciliatory grace as did Renoir that, in the combative Sturm und Drang of daily life, everybody has his reasons? –E.T.
In years to come, his admittedly flawed feature debut, Belly, not only will be more positively re-evaluated, but will be highly influential on other young directors. Having honed his skills on black-music videos, Williams brought hip-hop’s promiscuity with genre to his big-screen work, displaying both playfulness and a willingness to fuck with black representation like no one in recent memory. (Check out the way he highlighted Taral Hicks‘ beauty by darkening her skin — thereby flying in the face of recent, retro trends fetishizing light skin — and then coated her in a dark blue light. Or the way he dressed an inner-city thug in a Marlo Thomas That Girl wig and Coke-bottle glasses.) He does what so many hip-hop artists labor in vain to pull off: straddles pop and underground sensibilities while creating something that is both new and completely his own. If given the chance, he will continue to push the edge of the envelope, bringing hip-hop irreverence and a smart eye to the future of cinematic blackness. –E.H.
Never one to spill a drop when a gallon’s handy, Taiwanese writer-director Tsai Ming-liang is more than just a master of the modern weepie: He‘s melodrama’s Noah, riding out the typhoon of teardrops at the end of the century. Director of Taiwan‘s first AIDS-activist documentary and a former theatrical innovator, the 43-year-old Tsai makes films so refreshingly free of cynicism that their big-heartedness seems like some sort of special effect. Each one — Rebels of the Neon God, Vive L’Amour, The River and The Hole — centers around sexually ambiguous actor Lee Kang-sheng, a presence constantly yet calmly on the move between polymorphous extremes, yet there‘s never a moment in Tsai’s filmmaking when those extremes seem vulgar or strained. Maybe it‘s the startlingly lucid way Tsai balances sexual maturity and emotional accessibility that persuaded Strand Releasing to pick up Vive L’Amour for U.S. distribution a couple of years back, a gesture so bold as to suggest that Ang Lee might not be the only Taiwanese director worth an American dollar. Or maybe it was just that the male leads were both so hot. Either way, Tsai Ming-liang‘s films are forward-thinking models for independent filmmakers still to come: funny, sad, sexually open, audience-friendly and impossible to forget. –C.S.
One of the handful of essential filmmakers to emerge in the 1990s, the Hong Kong native is one of the few directors alive who makes films, not just words into pictures. As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, Happy Together, Fallen Angels — each of Wong’s films is a bliss-out of sight and sound, a collision of time, space and desire. Even if you‘ve never experienced one of his voluptuous features — and you can no longer count yourself a true movie-lover if you haven’t — you‘ve seen a film by someone else who has. In the last few years, the ripple effect of his modestly revolutionary aesthetic has enlivened movies as different as Go, Run Lola Run, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, even Liberty Heights, the last two shot by Wong‘s longtime cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. This is the future of film, if we’re lucky. –M.D.