Ten Great Movies Each Written and Directed by the Same Person
Movies That Illuminate
After watching hundreds of movies as a film critic, here is a pattern that I’ve noticed: The better films are those that are written and directed by the same person. Maybe this is because one person put all they could into making a movie, and when someone gives that much of themselves, it’s noticeable.
I think this explains why sometimes when I watch a movie (and perhaps this is the reason why I love movies), I get a sense that something special is happening. I feel a connection. But, it’s not just an emotional punch, which I think is something of a cheap trick. If you put a shot of 6-year-old Drew Barrymore crying as medics are frantically trying to revive E.T. (written by Melissa Mathison, directed by Steven Spielberg), I get tears in my eyes. I don’t think this is fair, though, because nothing needs to precede that shot for my gut reaction to be activated. It’s just the little girl. It’s just because she is crying. I am equally not impressed when I am frightened by the sudden appearance of the villain in a quiet scene.
Just because a movie can touch my emotions doesn’t make it a great film. It only makes it great entertainment and a likely Hollywood success. This is not meant to be insulting. There is real value in providing entertainment; we truly love those who entertain us, as the reality of celebrity adoration proves. But a great film also does something else.
These are the films that seem to reach out, to pierce the depths of consciousness, to illuminate our understanding. When I watch these movies I sense that they are different. They feel good and right, like the joy of decoding a secret message. And I think to myself, “Yes, I know what this movie is trying to say, and it’s important.”
E.T. does not do this for me because the message is confused: The scientists are trying to help E.T., but they are portrayed in a sinister light (they come in through the windows like straight-armed zombies); the focus is on getting E.T. back to his ship, while the wonder, the curiosity, the yearning for knowledge that should be present when meeting an alien from another planet is not there. Given the chance to get on the ship with E.T., to go to another planet, travel the Universe, wouldn’t you take it? Elliot doesn’t, and I can’t accept that. He passes on the chance to make his life extraordinary. That’s no way to seize the day, boy!
Fortunately here are 10 movies that do get it right, in chronological order:
- Star Wars (1977): a sci-fi fantasy written and directed by George Lucas. It is the touchstone of myth-making. This movie literally created an empire of devoted fans worldwide because of its masterful combination of storytelling, music and special effects. It is astonishing to consider that it all came out of one person’s mind.
- Back to the Future (1985): a sci-fi fantasy co-written and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Every shot in this movie feels significant and intentional, from the opening sequence of a room full of clocks to the tardiness of a teenager that not even a time machine can help. Few movies track a storyline so tightly. Everything fits perfectly -- the logic, the drama, the ending. It is always exciting and mesmerizing to watch.
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986): a comedy written and directed by John Hughes. For a gentle and satisfying reminder to have joy in your life, nothing beats a day with a high school senior taking a day off from school to be with his friends. They do nothing untoward -- no drinking, no drugs, no vandalism -- yet it is pure teenage rebellion, and you get to come along.
- Lucas (1986): a coming of age drama written and directed by David Seltzer. This movie is for those who want to see portrayals of friendship and humanity that leave you hopeful about others. It is a film that makes you wish real life were just like the movies.
- La Bamba (1987): a drama written and directed by Luis Valdez. Perhaps the best takeaway a movie can deliver is that life is short. This movie does that by delving into the subject matter of a young talented person dying: Ritchie Valens. The feeling of anguish is tremendous, as is the appreciation for what he left behind.
- Strictly Ballroom (1992): a comedy co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann. In the grand scheme of things, nothing really matters, so everything does. On the surface this movie is about something small, a man trying to dance “his way” in a competition, but in terms of meaning, it is about the difference between living on your knees and dying on your feet. This movie makes you want to fight against all tyrannical, megalomaniacal, power holders. Yes, dance can inspire these feelings, and this movie shows how.
- Groundhog Day (1993): a comical fantasy co-written and directed by Harold Ramis. This movie is a step-by-step guide to self-redemption, but it is done so comically and lightly that all you see is a great, imaginative story playing out before you. That is, until you look back and notice how profound it really is.
- Almost Famous (2000): a coming of age drama written and directed by Cameron Crowe. This is a heartwarming film that inspires and motivates. It is for anyone who has ever felt misunderstood and out of place, and wants to learn how to persevere.
- Something’s Gotta Give (2003): a romantic comedy written and directed by Nancy Meyers. This is really a touching movie about falling in love with someone unexpected, knowing that it is unlikely to work out, but hoping that the world didn’t work the way you know it does. This is romance, and it’s magical.
- Ratatouille (2007): a humorous animated fantasy written and directed by Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava. This is a beautiful, funny, film about following your passion no matter what your limitations are. It is astounding to realize that every frame was meticulously and deliberately crafted, because the movie feels so real and believable. You forget that you’re watching a cartoon.
These Are Classics
Obviously not all movies written and directed by the same person will be good, and the list is long of wonderful movies not written and directed by the same person.
But when done right, the message comes through cleaner and clearer when it is the same person. The story stands out because it is truly unique and interesting, and the result is amazing. Note the clarity of the message in Ferris Bueller's Day Off -- stop and smell the roses -- and the innovative splendor of Groundhog Day -- a man trapped in time. Note the timelessness of Star Wars, Strictly Ballroom or Ratatouille. Even reading the tiles is fun; they’re that good.
All these movies can withstand multiple viewings. They never get boring; they never lose their impact. The 10 titles listed here are profoundly rewarding to watch because they gratify as well as entertain, and that makes them ideal teaching tools for those who want to make great movies.
Do you agree that it's quite a feat to write and direct a well made movie?
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