Wednesday, March 11, 2015


I really shouldn't have sat on this for as long as I did (over18 months?). I should have released this during the period after Amour/before Bastards, but whatever...the work is done. Enjoy...

In my opinion Michael Haneke & Claire Denis are the two best active filmmakers on the planet and have been for quite some time. Cinema may not be as fresh & exciting as it was 40-something years ago but we're still living in an exciting time where some of the best films are coming out and these two filmmakers are behind a good portion of 'em. I don’t even think anyone else really comes close besides Oliver Assayas & Mike Leigh.
Now...there's a fairly legitimate argument in questioning Haneke & Denis' status in the world of cinema when their films may not have the same popularity due to limited runs in smaller theaters (especially in America). Both Haneke & Denis' films aren’t as accessible as other current popular filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, James Cameron, Scorsese, etc. How can you convince someone who just got finished watching Django Unchained that he/she needs to watch Code Unknown or Cache (two films that focus on racial & multicultural issues in this world better than anything I can think of) or someone who just finished watching Zero Dark Thirty that they should watch Beau Travail? You really can’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that both Haneke & Denis put out films that are more progressive (in terms of plot & filmmaking styles) than just about anything I can think of.

While most modern filmmakers today casually graze over issues like globalization, female sexuality, desencitization among youth, racial tension & the negative effect of the media, Denis & Haneke go a bit deeper (sometimes without needing much dialogue). Plus, and most importantly, they aren’t trying to solve these issues or put bandaids on things like Paul Haggis tried with Crash or Tyler Perry does with some of his work. Some of the best performances of the last 15+ years have come from their work (Isabelle Hupert in The Piano Teacher, Denis Lavant in Beau Travail, both Emanuelle Riva & Jean-Louis Trintigant in Amour, etc). And even though both filmmakers are Europeans, the themes & subject matter in their work is universal - The racial tension in Cache or Code Unknown applies to America. The subject of growing multinational countries & immigration isn’t just something that affects Europe. The stereotype of the absentee black father in America could easily be shattered by Alex Descas' performance in 35 Shots Of Rum as his character is very real and reminds me not only of my own father who was around, but plenty of other black fathers who either don’t get recognized or are ignored due the constant negative expectation that many people have towards black males when it comes to handling the responsibility of fatherhood.
Race is an important, sensitive, touchy & sometimes ignored issue in this world and has been for a while (and not just the relationship between black people & white people which seems to be the only lane filmmakers wanna explore when it comes to that). Haneke & Denis have been exploring race better than any director I can think of since Spike Lee released Bamboozled. The limited accessibility of their work means very little to me. Haneke & Denis' work is much too important & relevant to be disregarded simply because they're films don’t play at an AMC or get coverage in Entertainment Weekly. And with the growing number of indie & foreign films popping up on Hulu & Netflix along with the continued popularity of magazines like Film Comment, it’s become easier to discover films outside of mainstream cinema.
35 Shots Of Rum (Claire Denis)
I know some may think it’s pointless to determine who the "best" is (especially when I'm sure neither filmmaker cares) but it’s just my indescribable fascination to determine who the best is at something. Art house & independent cinema try to act like competition & awards are pointless. A lot of this has to do with older legends like Werner Herzog & Tarkofsky dismissing awards and/or giving great quotes like; "Awards are for dogs & ponies" (Herzog). There's this vibe I get that awards are beneath some filmmakers yet these art house & indie filmmakers rarely (or ever) turn down these "silly" awards that are supposedly beneath them (Herzog included). Sometimes I get the feeling that Cannes & Sundance are more competitive than the Oscars. So many feelings have been caught and so many beefs have been started over not getting awards or recognition at those festivals - Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing losing out to Sex, Lies & Videotape at Cannes in '89 and Lee subsequently threatening Wim Wenders with a bat, Von Trier flipping off Roman Polanski (head of the Cannes jury in '91) because Europa didn’t win best picture, Vincent Gallo getting snubbed by Paul Schrader at Sundance, etc. But being labeled the best can have some importance to it. It’s not just all about an award or a golden statue. Determining who's films best represents this world (while still giving credit to other important filmmakers at the same time) is an important honor in my opinion.

So...between Haneke & Denis, who's the best? Technically, if these two filmmakers were to be ranked, Haneke would easily be #1. Mainstream cinema has come to accept his (uncompromised) work more & more. The White Ribbon won a Golden Globe, Amour has dominated this year's Oscar nomination and his remake of Funny Games saw him working with more popular/mainstream actors like Tim Roth & Naomi Watts.
Isabelle Hupert in The Piano Teacher (Haneke) & White Material (Denis)

When you compare Haneke's work to Denis' (coincidentally, both filmmakers usually release films around the same time or within a year of each other) Haneke kinda wins hands down. Here's how I score their films next to each other...

The Seventh Continent vs. Chocolat
Benny's Video vs. No Fear, No Die (tie)
71 Fragments vs. I Can’t Sleep (barely)
The Castle vs. US Go Home*
Funny Games vs. Nenette & Boni
Code Unknown vs. Beau Travail
The Piano Teacher vs. Trouble Everyday
The Time Of The Wolf vs. Friday Night
Cache vs. The Intruder
Funny Games US vs. 35 Shots Of Rum
The White Ribbon vs. White Material
Amour vs. Bastards (tie)

* both have done quite a few made for tv movies in their countries but the Castle (Haneke) & US Go Home (Denis) are their two most known & accessible tv works so I’m putting them up against each other

racial tension in Code Unknown (Haneke) & No Fear No Die (Denis)

Although Haneke has more "wins", there is a more spiritual & soulful side to Denis. Don’t get me wrong, there's a gritty reality to Denis' films (No Fear No Die, US Go Home, I Can’t Sleep) but she also provides an escape. Films like The Intruder & the dreamy moments in Nenette & Boni provide an escape to a subconscious world. Haneke's work does occasionally explore dreams (or nightmares depending on how you look at it) but Denis is a bit more versed in stream of consciousness & dreaminess in my opinion. There's something about giving Haneke alone the title of "BEST" that bothers me. I don’t know if I want such cold, dark & biter work (The Piano Teacher, Cache, The White Ribbon, etc) to be the defining films of this era. Haneke is almost perfect but there isn’t a lot of hope in his films. Think about the final moments of The Time Of The Wolf or The Piano Teacher and tell me you feel any hope for humanity. Actually, Amour, Haneke's latest film, is really the only thing of his that says he has a heart. Say what you want about Claire Denis, who also happens to be versed in documentary filmmaking, but there’s a bit more hope in her work and you don’t feel like slitting your wrists or falling in to a mild depression after watching her films. I can be a cynic but I still have hope for this world. Influence and the impact a filmmaker has on cinema is also an important factor. Both filmmakers bring influences from an older generation in a much more subtle way than Tarantino or Refn yet still have original & influential styles. Some may not realize it but when watching The Seventh Continent, The White Ribbon, Beau Travail or 35 Shots Of Rum, viewers are being exposed to the filmmaking styles of Bresson, Dryer, Godard & Ozu. Furthermore, many modern French films & filmmakers are very reminiscent of Claire Denis (Gregory Colin, one of her regular actors, has gone on to become a director who's style is very similar to Denis'). Recent films like Michael, Afterschool and Dogtooth all borrow heavily from Haneke in terms of style & atmosphere.
The White Ribbon (Haneke)
Getting back to race for a moment - although both filmmakers are white Europeans, they're exploration of different races & ethnicities seems more genuine than most filmmakers (even those of color). There’s been a growing trend among many white filmmakers in the last decade where they like to explore cultures (mostly black) other than their own. The problem is that a lot of these films come off bad and/or bordering on being racist or perpetuating stereotypes (by accident, but still). The different cultures, races & ethnicities in Haneke & Denis' films don’t come off like studied entities from an uneducated or misguided white person viewing from a distance. In Denis' case this has to do with her growing up all throughout the continent of Africa and being exposed to different cultures & nationalities. Although the two filmmakers I feel are the “best” right now happen to be white, they don’t just explore “white” issues or make stories that are "white only" (especially Denis). Not many prominent filmmakers can say that. Where Haneke "beats" Denis in terms of recognition (golden globe & academy award nominations) Denis, in my opinion, has the edge in terms of racial exploration (although not to say that Haneke doesn't show racism in a masterful way). With films like Funny Games & Cache, Haneke clearly has a thing about "white guilt" and hints of insecurity or self hatred when it comes to racism whereas Denis is much more comfortable exploring racial issues.
Even if you don't agree with my theory (which is understandable depending on who you think are the best) you can still see where I'm coming from and understand my reasoning. I’ve read just about every piece of available literature on both directors and have watched their combined filmographies (while analyzing every single frame along the way) an unhealthy amount of times. I’m not the only person with this belief. In the last 10+ years Denis & Haneke have been praised by all the legitimate film publications and some of the best reviews, essays & write-ups have been based of off their films (BFI named Claire Denis filmmaker of the decade a few years ago). See my analysis on both Haneke & Denis from 2011. I'm curious to hear what you all think about Haneke & Denis impact on cinema today. Am I way off or on to something here?


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