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Director Jonathan Glazer: His 10 Best Commercials

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist March 31, 2014 at 2:22PM

So it feels like a long time that we’ve been talking, (and sighing and gasping and puzzling) about “Under the Skin,” which finally arrives for your viewing (and sighing and gasping and puzzling) pleasure this weekend. Only the third feature from director Jonathan Glazer, after the feted “Sexy Beast” and the hugely underrated “Birth,” we first reviewed it (warmly) out of Telluride, and then our man in Venice was so taken with it that we listed a further 5 reasons to put it at the top of your to-see list.
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Jonathan Glazer  10 Best Commercials

So it feels like a long time that we’ve been talking, (and sighing and gasping and puzzling) about “Under the Skin,” which finally arrives for your viewing (and sighing and gasping and puzzling) pleasure this weekend. Only the third feature from director Jonathan Glazer, after the feted “Sexy Beast” and the hugely underrated “Birth,” we first reviewed it (warmly) out of Telluride, and then our man in Venice was so taken with it that we listed a further 5 reasons to put it at the top of your to-see list.

Glazer himself hardly came from nowhere. In fact for many years now he’s been the closest thing there is to a superstar commercials and promos director, with those in the advertising business waiting for a new Glazer TV spot the way that film buffs might anticipate the next Christopher Nolan film. With not just one but several commercials and music videos that are regarded as the best examples of their form ever, to his name, it feels like Glazer has been honing and refining his filmmaking skills for years in these shorter formats, the better to come to features more or less fully-formed as an auteur. Because that’s the really special thing about the British director, and something that sets him apart from other commercials directors who’ve made the move to features—within his body of work in advertising, diverse as it is, you can see the definite evolution of a style and even of certain themes that again come to the fore in “Under the Skin.” There’s often an element of darkness, of something creepy going on even in the most celebratory of spots; he has a fondness for nighttime cityscapes and unusual faces; he’s overtly influenced by Kubrick; he finds the uncanny in the everyday; and even in his simplest cuts he has a peerless eye for a still image, but also an innate feel for the beauty of motion, that can often makes his work feel dynamic as well as iconic.

So to get you in the mood for the “Under the Skin,” then, we’ve decided to run down our ten favorite Glazer commercials. We'll be talking about his music videos later in the week too, though in the meantime you can also check out a recent piece on Music Video Turned Feature Directors here.

Commercials

10. Stella Artois Devil’s Island
Glazer has had an ongoing relationship with several brands for whom he has directed more than one commercial, with Stella Artois being one of the two alcohol brands (Guinness the other) with which he is most closely associated. The Belgian beer’s long-running “Reassuringly Expensive” campaign kicked off with a homage to the French film “Jean de Florette” and continued in that epic, cinematic scope thereafter too giving subsequent directors a chance to work in a longer format (many of the ads are 100secs or longer) and thus to tell a more complex story. This spot makes the absolute most of that impulse--featuring a huge cast (including Ron Perlman) and a suitably dramatic, period setting, and is one of three the director made for Stella.

9. VolkswagenLast Tango in Compton
We’ve mostly favored more storytelling-based commercials for this list, but made an exception for this more recent ad for Volkswagen, which, along with his previous spot for the Polo called “Protection,” is purely about the sexy imagery. But the assurance with which Glazer shoots this dance, the gorgeous warmth of the skin tones and the way he captures the motion is just so beautiful, and so earthily graceful without being at all fragile, that it really does speak volumes about the car it’s selling. And even if it didn’t, we’re suckers for a well-shot dance sequence, so this gets in purely on style.

8. Levi’sKung Fu
One of Glazer’s earliest spots to make it in, we think you can see he’s at a less established point in his career, with the slapstick humor of this spot an unusual element for a director whose natural impulses seem to tend toward the serious, the cool or the blackly ironic. But it’s a lot of fun, featuring Dustin Nguyen as a Bruce Lee-style operator who has to get to the gorgeous laundress to let her know to wash his jeans inside out. Silly, but so well shot and choreographed, and so deeply affectionate of the films it references (it reportedly uses soundbites and effects lifted directly from “Enter the Dragon”) that we love it anyway.

7. Barclay’s “Centaur
The series of ads that Glazer did for Barclay’s Bank, all starring Samuel L Jackson, are some of the more peculiar spots ever shot for a financial institution, and are also atypical in Glazer’s filmography. Crisply, simply shot and feeling largely unadorned, they are more about performance and dialogue than imagery, with Jackson delivering largely incomprehensible parables about pigs and chickens and bulls (“if a dollar was a chicken would a chicken be evil?”) while trudging through the countryside. In all it proved a short-lived direction for the bank to take and no, we’ve no idea why any of it relates to Barclay’s either, but that doesn’t mean that Jackson spouting doggerel in the rain doesn’t exert its own pull. Especially in this one, where the words are actually Shakespeare’s (from “A Comedy of Errors”).

6. GuinnessSwim Black
One of two Guinness commercials on this list (Glazer’s third was the also-beautiful “Dreamer” which just felt slightly less vital than these two), “Swim Black” is a prime example of a commercial that is totally elevated by the filmmaking. The story of an aging swimmer who is a local celebrity and his yearly swimrace against the Guinness tap is embellished with such wonderful casting (every single villager seems to have one of those faces into which is etched their whole character) and edited so cleverly that it feels like a short film into which the product is deeply embedded, as opposed to tacked on to the end.

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer, Denis Lavant, Samuel L. Jackson


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