Friday, August 10, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee - Conclusion and Re-Ranking

After re-watching all of Lee’s theatrical features (non-documentary) in the span of the month, my admiration for the filmmaker has never really been higher – it is one of the most daring and ambitious filmographies of any contemporary director. When Lee won the Lifetime Achievement Oscar a couple years ago, I know a lot of people (most who believed Lee deserved the award) said his filmography was incredibly uneven – which is a sentiment I both agree and disagree with. If I were to judge Lee strictly on the old Siskel & Ebert Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down scale, then Lee would be 19/2 – which is as high as you could expect. But, many of the films on Lee’s filmography – even some of his best – are uneven, are messy and do have flaws. That’s just the way Lee works – and its what makes his films special – the energy his best work has would not be served by cleaner, tighter, more “perfect” films. And yet, because of this style, I do think that Lee has made three essentially perfect films – and another eight that I completely, wholly admire, even if I have quibbles here and there, and eight more that are more flawed, yet fascinating or at the very least interesting. Yes, it’s an uneven filmography, made up of mostly imperfect films. This may explain why Lee has never been one to win a bunch of awards at the end of the year – everyone there seems to like to pick apart flaws. But it’s also why his films last – and often are more admired years later than they were when they were released – because those flaws fade from your memory, but what Lee gets right in his films never really does.
Anyway, after –re-watching all his films again, this is how I would rank them now – it’s pretty similar to the original ranking – the top 3 didn’t change, and only one film rose 3 spots, and only three other films whose rise or fall was +/- 2: I'll add BlacKkKlansman next week.
21. Girl 6 (1996) – Sadly the film I thought was the weakest going in, ended up the weakest coming out. I still don’t think Lee really understood the movie, the lead character, or how to tell the story. Quite simply the only film in Lee’s filmography that just completely, totally does not work.
20. Red Hook Summer (2012) – Lee returned to the kind of small, indie film that he made his name doing in the 1980s with Red Hook Summer. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really work – it feels like two movies that have been forced together, and neither really works. It is redeemed, somewhat, by the energy Lee brings to the film, and a great performance by Clarke Peters as a fiery Preacher, with a dark past.
19. Oldboy (2013) – I’m still trying to piece together why Lee’s version of Oldboy doesn’t work as well as it should. There certainly is a lot to admire about it – Lee goes all out stlystically, and much of it is brilliant. Most of the changes he makes to the narrative of the original also make sense – and are not done to soften the material. Josh Brolin is quite good in the lead role. And yet, it all combines to a fairly underwhelming film, for reasons I’m not exactly sure of. It’s still worth a look, but I think it should have been better.
18. She Hate Me (2004) – I’m torn here, because while the film is less successful than some other entries, it also gives you a lot more to think about and chew on than some of the ones ranked higher (like, say, Mo’ Better Blues). I want to encourage more to watch the film – even if they end up hating it, and being offended by it, because there is so much going on in it.
17. Miracle at St. Anna (2008) – There is no question that Lee’s war film is overlong and flawed, with too many characters and subplots that don’t add as much as they should have given how much screen time they get. Still, at its best, the film can be quite good – the war scenes themselves are visceral and bloody, some of the dynamics among the soldiers are fascinating. Lee was trying to make a corrective to 70 years of WWII films in one foul swoop – and if his major sin is over ambition, so be it.
16. Mo’ Better Blues (1990) – Is this Lee’s most forgettable good movie? Probably – it is well made, has a lot of great music, and a great Denzel lead performance – as well as solid work by Wesley Snipes and Cynda Williams. The problematic bookends don’t help much, and when all is said and done, you forget it soon after it’s over – which is not something you can say about too many other Lee films.
15. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) – I think you can make a case that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is Lee’s oddest film – a very strange remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja + Hess, which is very different from the original in terms of its tone, and is also very much a Spike Lee film. The tone is the most subdued of Lee’s career – which is doubly odd considering all the sex and blood. I still don’t know entirely what to make of this film after watching it twice – but I know I was enthralled this time through, and am more likely to revisit this than even several better, Lee films.
14. She’s Gotta Have It (1986) – I’m still bothered by some of the more problematic aspects of the film – the rape near the end, the depiction of the main character’s lesbian friend – but I’m even more bothered by how the lead character, Nola Darling, exists more as concept than character. I like Lee experimenting, even on a limited budget his first time out, and the three men are all interesting. But I’ll still insist that the movie’s social importance has little to do with how good it actually is, and more to do with the time period it came out in, and that Lee was doing something they hadn’t really been seen before – and the Netflix series is a far better version of this story.
13. Get on the Bus (1996) – The film plays like exactly what it is – a quick and dirty feature, made on the fly for little money, gathering a group of talented actors to tell the different stories of those who attended the Million Man March. That was its intent, and that’s what it accomplishes. A modest achievement, but a worthy one.
12. School Daze (1988) – Lee’s second film shows his tremendous ambition, as his depiction of life on the campus of an Historically Black College is expansive and stylistic, and unafraid to take chances – including a couple of great musical numbers. The best parts of School Daze are great – the musical number, the scene in the chicken restaurant with the locals, Giancarlo Esposito’s cruelty, etc. – but the film does feel like less than the sum of its parts as a total package.
11. Chi-Raq (2015) – You have to admire the guts Lee has making this film – about modern day Chicago, but written entirely in verse, that is also an all-out musical and a comedy, and yet has such heavy subject matter like the epidemic of gun violence in that city. It’s exuberant and ecstatic and incredibly odd and one I think I’ll watch and re-watch trying to figure it all out. Is it flawed? Sure – but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
10. Crooklyn (1994) – The only film in Spike’s career that could be described as nostalgic, this semi-autobiographical story about his and his sibling’s childhood – focusing mainly on the lone sister – is heartfelt, funny and sweet – yet still clear eyed – view of Brooklyn in the 1970s, and by contrast, the changes since then. An understated – and underrated – film.
9. Jungle Fever (1991) – Jungle Fever is a fascinating film about inter-racial relationships, which is better around the edges than it is at its core. The crack subplot – featuring on the best ever Samuel L. Jackson performances – is great (and climaxes in one of the best ever Lee sequences in the crack house – is great, as are some of the conversations about the central relationship. The central relationship is more symbolic than dramatic – and the ending is, um, not good – but there is a lot of great stuff things in the film, making it one of the most provocative films of Lee’s career.
8. Summer of Sam (1999) – Perhaps the most underrated films of Lee’s career, this sprawling, overheated examination of fear and paranoia in an insular Bronx neighborhood in the summer of 1977 when the Son of Sam was terrorizing New York. A companion piece of sorts to Do the Right Thing – another neighborhood, boiling in the heat, simmering in fear, paranoia and a constant threat of violence. I like this much more than most – but I’m right.
7. He Got Game (1998) – A father/son drama that doubles as an indictment of the basketball machine that commodifies black bodies for financial gain, there is so much here to love – a great Denzel performance (where he gets to play an asshole, something he does better than anything else) – and a view of basketball that still loves the game, but hates the business around it. Yes, it tries to do too much (everything with Milla Jovovich for example) – but the core of the film is fantastic.
6. Inside Man (2006) – Inside Man is a great genre film – tense and exciting, with terrific performances, pacing and exciting twists and turns. And yet, underneath all of that, there is a terrific Spike Lee movie here as well – a film about just how far people will go for money, how they will sell their soul – which links it to most of the films Lee had made the decade prior to this, but this time wrapped in an audience friendly package.
5. Clockers (1995) – Lee had studiously avoided movies about gangs and drug dealers until he made Clockers – a film that should be mentioned alongside Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society. The film shows the culture of drugs and violence, and how it effects everything and everyone in the neighborhood. The film also doubles as a police procedural genre film. The more times I see this, the more I love it. One of Lee’s very best films.
4. Bamboozled (2000) – Only Spike Lee would make a film like Bamboozled – a big, messy masterwork of satire, which is deliberately off-putting to everyone, strikes out in a thousand different directions, and is both hilarious and offensive. I’ve seen Bamboozled countless times now, and it still has the same effect each time. I understand why some people hate it – cannot even make it through it – but I think even that reaction validates Lee’s overall point. And oddly, for such a specific film, in many ways, it hasn’t aged at all.
3. 25th Hour (2002) – This is a great New York film, a great post 9/11 film and a terrific character piece about the last day of freedom of a drug dealer (Edward Norton) before he turns himself in for a seven year prison sentence. The film is a terrific character study not just of Norton’s character – but his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), his father (Brian Cox), his best friend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a high school student (Anna Paquin). That the film was released just a year after 9/11 is a miracle – as is the fact that Lee combines so many elements together in one perfect package. A stunning masterpiece.
2. Malcolm X (1992) – Is Malcolm X is the best biopic of all time? The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is. It starts with Denzel’s absolutely magnificent performance – truly one of the best in cinema history – and it goes through every other element of the film. Lee is interested in the complete man – flaws and all – and finds a way that could have played like a series of speeches into something so much deeper and more tragic.  Every time I see it, I am just as stunned as the first time I saw it. Another masterpiece.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989) – I doubt that a filmmaker will ever make a better film about race in America than Spike Lee made with Do the Right Thing – a film as relevant today (perhaps even moreso) than it was the year it was made, nearly 30 years ago. Lee’s mosaic of stories, all over one hot Brooklyn day, that eventually burst into violence, is both epic and intimate, sweeping and specific. It truly is one of the best films ever made – a masterpiece in every way imaginable.

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