By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com November 8, 2012 at 2:26PM
Twenty years ago, John Singleton became both the first African-American and the youngest person in history to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. The filmmaker picked up the Oscar nod (as well as another for the screenplay) for his scintillating, powerful directorial debut "Boyz n the Hood," all at the tender age of 24. Indeed, when the film premiered at Cannes the previous year, the USC grad was only 23, and his South Central-set film remains an amazingly assured, thrilling and exciting piece of work to this day. And yet Singleton's never lived up to the promise suggested by it. Follow-up "Poetic Justice" was something of a disappointment, but "Higher Learning" was a minor bounce-back. And 1997 period drama "Rosewood" remains the director's second best film, even if it tanked at the box office. But since then, it's been harder to get enthused about a new Singleton film, with the filmmaker becoming a sort of nameless action director-for-hire. Some of those films ("Four Brothers") have a certain ludicrous pulpy charm. Some ("Shaft," "2 Fast 2 Furious") really don't. Only 2001's "Baby Boy," a spiritual sequel to "Boyz n the Hood," suggested the Singleton of old was still going, and that was eleven years ago. Instead, we got a six-year gap after "Four Brothers," broken only by last year's "Abduction," a truly dreadful Taylor Lautner vehicle that would mark a career nadir for anyone who made it, let alone Singleton. It may be that Singleton, like many filmmakers with distinct storytelling voices, is finding it trickier to get more personal projects set up in the studio system. He was in the running recently for biopics of both N.W.A. and Tupac, but lost out on both cases. But maybe it's time, as Spike Lee did this year with "Red Hook Summer," for Singleton to go back to his roots again for something lower-budget, rather than taking the next C-level action programmer that comes across his desk.
Hardly a cinephile favorite, it's easy to forget the quality of some of Mike Newell's work in the 1990s. Newell started off in the golden age of British TV drama, where acclaimed dramatists like David Hare, David Edgar and John Osborne would produce work for the long-since defunct "Play For Today" slot. But he really started to turn heads in the mid-1980s with "Dance With A Stranger," the Miranda Richardson-starring biopic of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be given the death penalty, which won him an award for best young director at Cannes. Some solid work in the U.K. followed for the rest of the decade until "Enchanted April" (one of Harvey Weinstein's first successes with Miramax) kicked off a pretty terrific run of work in the 1990s: charming family comedy "Into The West," rom-com classic "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the undervalued "An Awfully Big Adventure," and, best of all, "Donnie Brasco," in our view one of the best modern-day mob pictures. Newell showed a diversity, skill with actors and tonal assurance that boded well for what more was to come. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. "Pushing Tin" felt like a minor misfire, and thought he helmed one of the better Harry Potter entries with 'Goblet Of Fire,' the work of the last decade has been pretty dismal. Treacly romance "Mona Lisa Smile," the disastrous Gabriel Garcia Marquez adaptation "Love In the Time of Cholera," the half-assed blockbuster "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," and, this year, an uninspired, by-the-numbers take on Dickens' "Great Expectations" has seen the helmer on a run of middling to terrible pictures. Newell's seen as a safe pair of hands, but in the worst possible way; there's a complacency and a disinterest in his recent films, unrecognizable as from the man behind "Donnie Brasco." Maybe the upcoming Cold War peace summit film "Reykjavik," with Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan and Christoph Waltz as Gorbachev, will turn things around, but we're not holding our breath.
All the directors on this list have made films we like, but perhaps only John Singleton can claim to have made one of the best films of its respective decade. Fernando Meirelles can make that claim too; his firecracker debut "City of God" (co-directed with Katia Lund) came out of nowhere, an astonishingly made favela-set crime tale of staggering scope and skill, weaning magnificent performances out of a young, mostly non-professional cast, and doing so with a vibrancy and filmmaking proficiency that suggested the arrival of a major director. And things were almost as promising with the director's follow-up, "The Constant Gardener," a quieter, very different film, but one with many of the qualities of its predecessor, and featuring truly great performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (who won an Oscar for her trouble). But Meirelles' success rate has plummeted with his two subsequent films. An adaptation of Jose Saramago's "Blindness," set in a world where the entire population start to lose their sight, was always going to be a tricky one to get right. But this time, Mereilles' style worked against him, making it hard to latch onto the film, not least because of an overly allegorical and grubby script. Still, the film's a masterpiece compared to follow-up "360," an international spin on "La Ronde" by "Frost/Nixon" writer Peter Morgan, which premiered on the festival circuit last year and swiftly imploded. It looked attractive at least, but a screenplay that alternated between being smug and pat and a throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks visual approach added up to something of a disaster. Meirelles has since been plotting a biopic of Aristotle Onassis, but it missed its mooted 2012 shooting date, so far at least. It doesn't immediately sound like the right tonic, though. We feel that Meirelles needs to hook up with a really top-flight screenwriter, or even reunite with Lund, in order to regain his mojo.
Thoughts? Surely, you must have some directors in mind who, maybe shouldn't fire their agent exactly, but perhaps should take a hard look at the projects they're taking on and asking themselves why the recent ones haven't worked. Yes, there are a million myriad factors at play when directing a film and lots can go wrong with even the best filmmakers in the world, but placing a closer eye on the material and hopefully not taking the gig just based on a paycheck (though, we get it, that's a reality for many freelancers), can hopefully ensure the final product is something everyone can at least be reasonably proud of.