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Who Would Be the Three Michelin Star Directors?

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by Matt Singer
August 16, 2012 2:58 PM
10 Comments
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"Jiro Dreams of Sushi"
"Jiro Dreams of Sushi"

Sukiyabashi Jiro doesn't look like much, just a small sushi bar located in a subway station in Japan. But according to many experts, this small sushi bar is the best restaurant of its kind in the entire world. Diners wait weeks for the chance to spend about $350 on a twenty course sushi tasting that rarely lasts longer than 20 minutes.

This unique restaurant and its head chef, Jiro Ono, are the subject of the recent documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD (and coming to Netflix Watch Instantly next week). Even if you're not a foodie, this is a film worth watching; a fascinating portrait of the rewards -- and the price -- of perfectionism. Ono has spent decades honing his craft, thinking about sushi from every considerable angle: how to find the best ingredients, how to produce the best rice and soup, how even to seat the diners for maximum expediency and enjoyment. But, by his own admission, devoting himself so thoroughly to his career made him a less than ideal father, and his two sons, who are both in the restaurant business, seem to treat Jiro more like a boss they admire (and maybe even fear) than a family member.

Sukiyabashi Jiro's many awards and accolades include three stars from the illustrious Michelin Guide. Don't let their weird logo with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man's cousin fool you; Michelin is one of the most respected restaurant guides on the planet. They evaluate on a three star scale. One star means "a good place to stop on your journey." Two stars is "worth a detour." Three stars, the best of the best, says a restaurant is "worth a special journey" all its own just to eat there. And Jiro's sushi restaurant has three stars.

To give the viewer some perspective about Jiro's reputation, director David Gelb interviews a Japanese food critic about Michelin stars and the grading system they employ. He explains how Michelin measures restaurants based on three criteria: quality, originality, and consistency. To receive three stars, it's not enough to be good, you have to be great. And it's not enough to be great; you have to be uniquely great. And it's not enough to be uniquely great; you have to be consistently, uniquely great. 

As an amateur foodie (and semiprofessional viewer of Gordon Ramsay reality shows), I was already familiar with the Michelin guide and their vaunted stars. But I'd never heard their ratings explained quite that way. And it struck me in that moment that those same qualifiers -- quality, originality, and consistency -- might also work well as a means of judging and ranking filmmakers.

After all, the very best directors are the ones who are consistently, uniquely great. Even a hack might stumble into a great movie given the right screenplay and stars. Creating something exciting every single time is a much rarer skill. The directors we follow throughout their careers are the ones who always find new ways to excite us, who never phone it in or take a movie off. 

So the question is: if Michelin made a guide for film instead of travel, who would be their ultimate three star directors? There's a couple obvious names right at the pinnacle -- Hitchcock, Kubrick, Chaplin -- but from there things get interesting. Francis Ford Coppola's highs can stand beside any other director's in history, but his lows are deep and numerous; is he "consistent" enough for the three star tag? Woody Allen works pretty consistently, but has he varied his formula enough to qualify in the "originality" category? Where does Orson Welles fit? Or John Ford? Or Jean-Luc Godard? Or the Coen Brothers?

All questions that might make for stimulating conversation at your next dinner party. You could even cater it with sushi. Tell me your three star directors in the comments section below.

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10 Comments

  • bob hawk | August 19, 2012 12:45 AMReply

    Naming only three directors is patently absurd -- as are Sight and Sound's various lists. I could (but won't at this time) name at least 100 directors whose BODY OF WORK is worthy of membership in some sort of pantheon of masters of their art. But all have also stumbled -- from Altman to Chaplin to Fellini to Hitchcock to Kubrick to Malick to Wilder, ad infinitum. The only exception may be Jean Vigo, but he died at 29, with only one feature (L'ATALANTE), and one great "featurette" (as opposed to short): ZERO FOR CONDUCT. To me, the main value of all these lists (a few years ago the Toronto IFF offered a list of the 100 most "essential" films of all time) is that they will lead people to a film or filmmaker that they had not been previously aware. Thus, all these lists, articles, blogs and comment threads have great value in passing along the word about the unknown wonders to be discovered by individuals who haven't seen every movie ever made -- meaning all of us.

  • Forrest | August 16, 2012 7:54 PMReply

    I'm not so sure about Hitchcock. He has a lot of weak films if you look, and if we're saying Allen might not have varied his formula, can we really say that Hitchcock and Chaplin have?

    Kurosawa
    Bergman
    Scorsese
    Bunuel
    Godard
    Kubrick

    Newer directors who, if time (and future output) is kind, may qualify:
    Haneke
    Malick
    Kiarostami
    Coens
    Weerasethakul
    Wong Kar-Wai


    I've left off several names that could probably be in the running if I had seen more of there movies (Lang, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Fellini, and more).

  • Christopher L | August 16, 2012 7:21 PMReply

    The first person I could think of is Paul Thomas Anderson. I have not seen all his films, but from the ones I have seen, and from opinions of others, it seems his filmography is practically impeccable. Another would be Terrence Malick, while not a fan of "The New World", and "The Thin Red Line" his other films have delivered some of the most astounding visuals I have ever viewed.

  • Phil | August 16, 2012 6:36 PMReply

    Good question.... consistency is difficult for anyone who has made a lot of films. Hitchcock has quite a few weak films if you dig far enough. I haven't seen all of Kurosawa, but I doubt they are all masterpieces. I love the Coen Brothers, but maybe they'd get 2 1/2 stars...
    classic directors: Kurosawa, Bergman, Fritz Lang, Renoir, Ozu, Truffaut, Tarkovsky
    working directors: P.T. Anderson, Martin Scorcese, Terrence Malick

  • Franco | August 16, 2012 5:23 PMReply

    Hitchcock? He was consistently great but was he all that original? In technical innovations yes but in story and theme and even genre he was treading in similar waters. For dozens and dozens of films.

    Also, would Malick count? He's not as prolific as some but what he doe have is uniquely distinctly and consistently great. If being prolific is a prerequisite then Jiro would lose stars for running a tiny restaurant.

  • Shannon Briggs | August 16, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    I would add Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Quentin Taratino.

  • James Kang | August 16, 2012 3:29 PMReply

    Consistently, uniquely great? Terence Davies, The Coen Brothers, Jafar Panahi. But I still haven't seen all of their films.

  • James Kang | August 16, 2012 3:37 PM

    And Terrence Malick. He's not one of my favorites, but everything he's made so far have been considered towering masterworks.

  • michael | August 16, 2012 3:19 PMReply

    Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski

  • Ken | August 18, 2012 1:31 AM

    Almost certainly Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Kieslowski and Malick. Lacking in consistency but masterful: Fellini. Masterful but lacking in variety: Bergman, Ozu. Although, with regards to the latter two, this is kind of the point of their cinema - perfected works and slight variations on the same themes. They weren't striving for originality where their counterparts might have been. Hard to judge them because of this. Might be where this rating system fails...?

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