The Painfully Brief Candle of Modern Auteurs: A Scientific Survey
My friend Michael Oates Palmer has in the past put forth a challenge: to find runs wherein directors made four great films in a row. He asserts this is almost impossible. Mark Kermode’s BBC radio show recently attempted the same challenge, coming up with only a few examples, so I decided it was time for a definitive survey.
The Results: Indeed, it seems it is almost impossible for modern directors to make four good movies in a row. There are only a handful who have done so. Many of the directors from the past 40 years whom have accumulated the most impressive bodies of work, often could not keep up a streak without falling down every third or fourth movie. Robert Altman, for example, has as many great films to his name as any director ever will, but routinely alternated the greats with misfires. In the end, this doesn’t really matter. If you die with as many great films as an Altman did, nobody cares about your batting average. But still it’s interesting academically to see that it seems almost impossible to maintain a streak for modern directors, as opposed to pre-60’s directors like Billy Wilder, Hitchcock or John Ford whom could knock out a dozen classics without stopping to tie their shoelaces.
My theory is that modern directors are making more personal films than their predecessors, often with their own scripts. And that these more personal endeavors are a riskier, more variable undertaking than being part of the studio system. It is inevitable that even the greats are going to flail for material or new ideas after digging so deep for a while. What is more nefarious however, is the boom/bust cycle of directors, whereby a few big successes give them more power, which they use to pursue ever more esoteric and grandiose projects until their grandiosity finally does outrun their creative abilities and sense. That ended more than a few streaks on this list. And it’s thus interesting to note that most of the directors with the longest streaks have never had monster hits, so have been kept on somewhat short leashes throughout their careers. And the name at the top of the list was as close to a genre/arthouse director as their ever will be..
Anyway, before revealing the results of the full survey, here are the rules:
• This list starts counting in 1968, roughly the year of the final death of the studio system. No films before then are eligible. So Stanley Kubrick, who was in the middle of a run in 1968, only gets credit for what came after.
• This list only counts films that I have seen. There are thus some tragic omissions, particularly with foreign directors who have large numbers of films that have never been released in the US. All the films on this list, I have certified with my own eyes as very good or better. Those I am not able to certify, are not on here, so thus, this survey is somewhat incomplete.
• Only films which stand on their own merits and earn an “A minus” grade or above qualify for this list. No interesting failures. No “I’d rather see the worst of Coppola than the best of…” No “it shows you an interesting side of this great director.” They must on their own be very good films at least.
• I do not accept revisionist arguments about Heaven’s Gate, 1941, New York, New York or One From the Heart. I wish they were, it would make a better story. But they’re not. Please take them elsewhere and if you think those movies are so great, you go and sit through them again. I agree they are all “interesting” and all have amazing moments. None, on their own, are great films.
7 FILM STREAK
• Sam Peckinpah: The Wild Bunch, Cable Hogue, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, Pat Garret, Alfredo Garcia.
• Hal Ashby: Harold, Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, Being There
• Cronenberg: The brood, Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Zone, The Fly, Dead Ringers
• Michael Ritchie: Downhill Racer, Prime Cut, The Candidate, Smile, Bad News Bears, Semi-Tough
• Almodovar: All About My Mother, Talk To Her, Bad Education, Volver, Broken Embraces, The Skin I Live in
• Paul Thomas Anderson: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk, Blood (still in progress)
• John Carpenter: Halloween, THe Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine.
• John Landis: Kentucky Fried, Animal House, Blues Brothers, American Werewolf, Trading Places
• Wong Kar Wai: Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046
• Cassavettes: Faces, Husbands, Minnie, A Woman, Killing
• Rafelson: Head, Five Easy, Marvin Gardens, Stay Hungry, Postman
• Coppola: Godfather, Conversation, Godfather 2, Apocalypse
• Coens: Blood Simple, Raising, Miller’s, Fink
• Woody Allen: Zelig, Broadway Danny, Purple Rose, Hannah
• Miyazki: Monoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s, Ponyo
• William Friedkin: Boys in the Band, French ConnectION, Exorcist, Sorcerer
• Alan Parker: Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Fame, Shoot the Moon
• Nicole Holofcener: Walking and Talking, Lovely, Friends, Please Give (still in progress)
• Nicholas Roeg: Dont Look Now, Man Who Fell, Bad Timing, Eureka
• Bob Fosse: Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz, Star 80
And below that, no one has hit four films in a row; Bogdanovich has a 3 film streak. So do Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton and Roman Polanski. Scorsese has two three film streaks, but none of them make it to four.
Some other findings:
• Speilberg has never had more than a two film run.
• Michael Mann shockingly barely has a two film run
• Christopher Nolan would be in the middle of a huge run if it weren’t for The Prestige.
• I’m just not going to see eye to eye with you about David Lynch so don’t start with me.
• Others who had amazing 70’s without getting a four film run: DePalma, Lumet…
• Soderbergh barely has any two film streaks
• I haven’t seen alot of those Jonathan Demme 70’s films that people say are great, so he might make it for those.
• About Schmidt, which I give a B plus to, spoils what would be a four film run for Alexander Payne.
The big takeaway here is that PTA is one film away from tying for the greatest streaks in modern film, two films away from tying the all-time champ, three films away from owning the greatest streak in modern film.