Monday, December 12, 2005

Work of Directors: The Top 21

Having now seen most of the stuff from the second Work of Directors series, I figured it was time to do a summary of my favorite videos from the seven DVDs that have been released so far. I love these discs, since they offer so much quality filmmaking in short doses, really exciting stylistic jumps in both editing and cinematography. So, here's a countdown of the top 21 videos.

21. Radiohead - 'Street Spirit' (Glazer): This video has the advantage of being for one of my favorite songs, a beautiful composition. The video features gorgeous black and white photography and a lot of interesting time lapse stuff. Even though there's cool split screen work, like with the throwing of water and one Thom jumping over a stick that the other Thom is waving, the strongest image is the extreme closeup on Thom Yorke's face. It's an elegaic video, fitting the song it was made for. Unfortunately, Jonathan Glazer's disc only had eight videos on it, this was the only one to make it on the list.

20. The White Stripes - 'Fell in Love with a Girl' (Gondry): This is the infamous lego video, which, like a lot of Gondry's stuff, is a stunning technical achievement. Everyone I've shown to says something to the effect of "That must have been very annoying to make," and that's probably true, but it's worth it. I love how you can see the lego base sometimes in the video, giving you more of a feel that this really is legos, not just a cool effect, because some of the stuff later in the video, like the faces walking away from each other, it's tough to believe it was really an individual bunch of blocks.

19. Johnny Cash - 'Hurt' (Romanek): This is considered by a lot of people to be the best music video of all time, or at least the most serious use of the form. It's a really powerful video, you can see how old and frail Johnny is, his hand shaking as he defiantly pours the cup of wine on the table. My favorite part is towards the end, when he cuts in clips of Jesus being nailed on the cross, the hammer echoing the heavy beats in the music. Considering how soon he died after the video, this feels like a perfect summation of Cash's life, and all the good and bad present therein. I haven't seen 'Walk the Line,' but I doubt anything in it is as powerful as this three minute video.

18. Aphex Twin - 'Come to Daddy' (Cunningham): Chris Cunningham's collaboration with Aphex Twin produced two of the videos on the list. This video is pretty disturbing, most notably the really odd midgets/children with the face of Richard James. The image of the monster coming out of the TV and yelling at the old lady is fantastic and the whole video has a post-apocalyptic disturbing intensity about it.

17. Chemical Brothers - 'Elektrobank' (Jonze): This is Jonze's gymnast video. It features a great performance from Sofia Coppola (who also puts in a really strong performance in Sednaoui's video 'Sometimes Salvation,' she's definitely one of the coolest people in existence today) as a gymnast. The video is pretty cool on the whole, despite some obvious doubling on the actual gymnastic sequences, however it's one moment of perfect music and visual cohesion. About 3/4s through the video, Coppola is in pain, fighting a leg injury and she pauses for a moment, before her face turns to steel and she goes right into a nasty tumbling routine as the song goes into this hard industrial breakdown, taking the song deeper than it had been before. The visual fits perfectly with the music, and this one moment makes the video a total success.

16. Audioslave - 'Cochise' (Romanek): This is another video that's sold on one big moment. The first minute or so is the band going up an elevator, all the while the music slowly building. They reach the singer who's already standing on top of the building and as they get their instruments the music explodes with a nasty guitar riff and the sky explodes with a massive fireworks display. After a minute of buildup, it's a phenomenal release and the rest of the video is propelled by this one stunning moment. The fireworks are all beautiful, but it's really that initial explosion that makes the video work. It's a great example of a director really using the song's properties to make the video great.

15. Bjork - 'All is Full of Love' (Cunningham): Bjork has done a lot of great videos, but I would consider this her best, a story of two robots in love. The most notable thing about the video is the stunning robots that Cunningham created, they look completely real, watching the making of you can see the CG enhancement, but in the video, it's completely believable. The way he used Bjork's face on the robot is stunning as well. The really impressive thing here is the fact that it's such a warm video, robots and Cunningham are both typically cold, but here, you really feel their love and the moment when they kiss causing a shower of sparks is a beautiful note to close the video on.

14. Mirwais - 'I Can't Wait' (Sednaoui): Stephane produces some of the most visually stunning stuff I've ever seen, particularly in his two collaborations with Mirwais. This video has a lot of subtext, in the way it shows all sorts of people 'phasing' out of Mirwais, his identity constantly in flux. I love the constantly changing identity, particularly in the head on shot of the body changing from person to person. It's a great song and the video contributes to its atmosphere with a lot of bizarre surreality.

13. Nine Inch Nails - 'Closer' (Romanek): Speaking of bizarre, this is a video that takes place in a really odd space, that's simultaneously past and future. It's full of so many crazy images, the monkey on a cross, the beating heart, the bald men in suits. It's got a freakshow from hell vibe, and a very dark cool. I love Trent's goggles and the image of his body rotating in the air. I love the editing on the final driving instrumental section Plus, the final image of Reznor swinging through the air, hitting the final notes of the song's melody on a mini-piano is fantastic.

12. Chemical Brothers - 'Let Forever Be' (Gondry): Gondry's work is frequently concerned with the difference between exciting dream/fantasy worlds and the mundane everyday. This video is the best depiction of that, starting with grainy digital video footage of a woman waking up and a bum on the street, then transforming into a gaudy, technicolor fantasy world where she seems to be the star of a Busby Berkley style old Hollywood musical. the transitions between the worlds are ingenious, the visuals here are phenomenal. I love the dancers with giant masks of the woman's head, or the kalidoscopic image of the bum on drums seen four times in one frame. It reads great as her daydreaming during a boring ordinary day, or just as a series of really odd images.

11. Oui Oui - 'Ma Maison' (Gondry): This is an early Gondry video and it's completely nuts. The band is dressed up as bugs, scurrying through underground tunnels, pollinating flowers, and fleeing from a giant foot out to stomp on them. I love the look of the bugs, with huge goggles and helmets. Despite being live action, the video feels like stop motion, and the stunning sets contribute to that feel of a world too odd to be real.

10. Daft Punk - 'Da Funk' (Jonze): This is more a short film set to music than a music video, what with its extensive dialogue, but it's still on the list because the song does a great job of accompanying the action. This is one of the rare videos where Jonze lets down his typical jokey, pop culture referencing style and instead engages in some weightier emotional material. It's a surreal video because the main character is a dog, but that's never commented on. He goes through the city and people disrespect him, but not because he's not human, rather because he's a newcomer to the city and seems unable to function in the demanding environment. The scenes with Beatrice and Charles are painfully awkward at first, then warm, and then tragic when he can't get on the bus. What is the meaning of the jukebox he can't let go of? It's nonsensical, and yet is perfectly representative of the issues that people carry around. He's trying to turn down or let go of that which is holding him back, and yet he just can't, he has to keep carrying it around instead of moving forward.

9. Aphex Twin - 'Windowlicker' (Cunningham): This video is a rare example of something that's both incredibly disturbing and rather funny. The video is a parody of rap videos, starting with the long opening skit featuring two wannabe gangsters using the words "nigga" and "bitch" in every sentence. They encounter two women, but are quickly bumped away by an absurdly long limousine, inside of which sits a dapper Richard James. From there, the video proper begins and it is disturbing. Cunningham draws attention to the depiction of women in these videos by doing a typical booty video, only putting Richard James' face on the women, so their bodies are the same, but their faces are disturbing. This disconnect is really odd to experience. If you thought James was scary on a bunch of midgets, check out this video for something even more disturbing. The real James does some funny tap dance work, and things amp up to him popping the cork on a bottle of champagne and spraying it on the women, an action that may possibly have a double meaning. The video seems to take place in an odd alterna-world, and that's one of its greatest advantages. It's like nothing else I've ever seen and though it's definitely disturbing, once you get past the surface, it's also hilarious in its excess.

8. Kylie Minogue - 'Come into My World' (Gondry): This video is a technical marvel. We start with Kylie taking a walk around her neighborhood, the camera rotating around following her until she returns to where she started and another Kylie walks out of the building. Watching things build to the finale where there's not only four Kylies, but also four of everyone else in the town is amazing, and making things even more stunning is the fact that there's no cuts in the video. It's a dazzling technical achievement and a great example of a video that starts out small, but continually ups the stakes. It's also great for repeat viewing so you can notice the subtle interactions between the different Kylies. The effects are totally seamless and I'm still at a loss for how this was done. And on top of all that, it fits the song perfectly, both lyrically (you're entering another world), and also structurally, with each of the cycles the length of one verse of the song.

7. Cibo Matto - 'Sugar Water' (Gondry): This is the rare music video that requires multiple viewings to really understand what's going on. What at first appears to be a simple split screen two stories set up soon crosses over, bending time and character interactions, with simultaneous forward and reverse action. I love the way Gondry incorporates the song title into the video, first with the sugar/water shower visual pun and also with the writing on the window. More importantly, there's the stunning way the two stories interact and comment on each other, and eventually cross over. Things from the start of the video pay off at the end and it takes a bunch of viewings to really understand the depth of just how tied these two pieces are. And this is another one with essentially no cuts.

6. Beastie Boys - 'Sabotage' (Jonze): This video was actually the whole reason I got the first batch of Director's Label DVDs. I loved it when I first saw it and I still do. It's a fantastically fun video. Clearly it was very enjoyable to make and that joy is conveyed to the viewer when watching it. The costumes are great, I love the 70s vibe. The best moment here is when the body falls off the bridge at a high point in the music, and also the one underwater shot is very cool. The low budget, homemade feel adds to the charm of the video, and the characters' similarity to Division X from The Invisibles doesn't hurt either.

5. U2 - 'Discotheque' (Sednaoui): I'm probably a bit biased because this is one of my favorite songs, but I'd be the first to admit that most U2 videos are pretty weak. However, this one is amazing. It's set inside a disco ball, which means there's a whole bunch of strange colors. The video uses a lot of camera moves where the camera seems to be in a ball that Bono is batting around. The handheld stuff is great, really conveying the feel of the music. That's the best thing about the video, more than any of the individual images, it's the way that the editing seems to mirror exactly the music it's set against. There's the quick zooms for the guitar parts, the long shots for the sustained slow sections and quicks cuts for the "Boom" section. Now, every music video does this to some extent, but very few succeed in creating visual music like this video does, and that's not to say that it's all edting. The images of Larry with the disco ball and Bono and people time lapsed together are both fantastic. Even the Village People homage at the end works, despite the band's apparent lack of enthusiasm for it. Fantastic stuff.

4. Fiona Apple - 'Criminal' (Romanek): This is an odd video, with a lot of subtext to analyze. The whole video has a very dirty, 70s porn feel, with the wood panelled basement and seemingly drugged out malaise of the main characters. However, the fact that Apple looks very young makes the whole thing feel like underground, illegal porn that shouldn't be getting made, and on top of that, the way the video is filmed is to maximize the photo-voyeurism, be it with Apple's red eye in the first shot, or the mechanical pans that give this the appearance of security camera footage. In both the lyrics and the visual content, it's unclear whether Apple is in control of all that's happening, or if she's being taken advantage of. Who is the criminal here? The way the video is shot makes it feel like the viewer is, like we're being privy to something we shouldn't see. I guess the video ultimately is about the contradictions in female sexuality, how it is simultaneously empowering and also something that can lead to subjugation. Trapped in the car, she's helpless, but in the bathtub, she's taking joy in the power she has. A really bold, challenging video.

3. Mirwais - 'Disco Science' (Sednaoui): This is another crazy video that fits really well with the song. I love the heat energy effect that's on Mirwais as the video begins, pulsing to the song's beat. Mirwais as samurai fighting geishas who fire lasers from their nipples is as weird as it sounds, I love the void they're fighting in. Mirwais' acting here is actually really strong, particularly his befuddled expression as the women work on him, and trap him in the cage thing. The high point of the video is the end where Mirwais and the women are engaged in an orgy, covered in liquid which pulses, changing colors, turning them into an indiscriminate mass of heat energy. It reminds me a lot of the 'strip off' scene with Edith in volume three of The Invisibles. This is Sednaoui's best use of the geisha motif, and like Criminal, it's got a dirty 70s porn feeling, which works great for the song, which definitely feels porn like as well. The cutting and camera moves draw out what's implicit in the song, creating really strong visual rhythm to accompany the stunning visuals.

2. Jay-Z - '99 Problems' (Romanek): This video is the most successful use of cutting to mimic music I've ever seen in a music video. The song's heavy beat serves as the perfect accompaniment for Romanek's gorgeous black and white photography. The scenes that he shoots are all aesthetically interesting, be it Jay-Z walking on a bridge or Rick Rubin in a record store, and within this video we even get a little short story about the time Jay was stopped by the cops. Things start to get really interesting during a musical breakdown accompanied by the performance of a dance troupe, which is synched perfectly to the beat, both their motions and the cutting. I admire the video for showing something closer to real urban life than the fantasy of most rap videos. There's still most the same ingredients, scantily clad women, rapper performing, but it's presented alongside images of homelessness and prison life, creating an interesting juxtaposition. The best cutting I've ever seen in a video is at the end of this one, as everything builds to a climax. Jay performing in a cramped club is intercut with dogs fighting, intercut with a church choir, Rick Rubin and Jay getting shot out on the street. The camera movement combined with the editing creates this incredible sense of motion, echoing exactly the feeling the song has at that moment. I particularly love the intensity of the visuals here, it's extremely powerful filmmaking.

1. Daft Punk - 'Around the World' (Gondry): This video is the best video on here because it is the most adept at creating visual music. Daft Punk's songs are notable for the way they layer different instruments on top of each other, adding and subtracting to create the song. So, Gondry echoes this in the visual composition, having a whole bunch of oddly clad dancers stand for each of the different instrumental sections. So, a bunch of people with fake plastic heads going up and down the stairs represent an ascending and descending bass line, while slow moving astronauts represent the drawn out vocodered vocal. So, you visually get to watch the song build up and see hwo all the different parts interact, which is stunning when everything finally comes together. By the end, when all the characters are dancing together it's visually stunning, a tableau worthy of Busby Berkley. Besides their signifiance to the music, all the characters are dressed really cool. Gondry's costumes are a nice mix of kitsch and style. This is truly a music video, a perfect fusion of visual approach and song.

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