It’s easy to point to a director and pinpoint their prime output to the span of a decade or two. Many directors have a fiery, potent period of energy and rage that burns brightly and then explodes (for directors who die young, or who ceremoniously renounce the field) or fade away (for those who continue to release films but grow weary and tired with age).
Yet while many directors of old never made it past sixty, quite a few were still in their prime, and at least a few released their unqualified masterwork, in their latter years. To this extent, here is a list of some of the finest long-lasting directors and their greatest releases past their sixtieth birthday.
Note: In a strange turn of events, more than a few masterworks were birthed during their progenitor’s 60th year. These films – most notably Jacques Tati’s Play Time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Orson Welles’ F for Fake – were considered, but the essence of this list is ultimately not to play with time and release dates to include films that questionably fit.
The purpose is to capture directors in their waning years still at, or near, their prime, to challenge the stereotype that youth begets passion, and to remind that age can give someone something to prove and instill new fire where once there was none. For this purpose, sixty is barely out of the womb, and these films were not included.
20. The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki
Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed final feature length production is a tad conventional and suffers in comparison to his earlier works, which plunged the pits of human melancholy and shot straight to the summit of hope and youthful beauty in decidedly non-narrative landscapes-of-the-mind.
Miyazaki is always at his best when his films are at their most childlike, which is to say he is at his best when his films take the form of a child and observe the world with the naive inquisitiveness and attention to little, perplexing detail matched to broad, huge emotions known primarily to children.
The Wind Rises does not take this form, making it minor Miyazaki. But then minor Miyazaki is still a major work in today’s world. The Wind Rises is an altogether lovely bit of modern impressionism borrowing its brightest moments directly from the windy, free-flowing emotions of painterly precision.
It’s a gorgeous film that retains his famed watercolor dream atmosphere and explores the tumultuous inner dialectic of a creator in a world that only knows death from creation. It is perhaps Miyazaki’s most personal film, his aviation-prone protagonist serving as a stand-in for Miyazaki himself and coping enigmatically with the inner torment of mankind’s penchant for the use and abuse of art.
19. Beaches of Agnes by Agnes Varda
An aching grin of a film. Agnes Varda’s Beaches of Agnes plays like a particularly fluent, fragmentary trip down memory lane but is nonetheless still wholly temporal, tempestuous, and excitingly aware of its own present tense. Varda plays around with her life on the beaches of time and revisits many of the people and places who made her her, but she carefully and conspicuously avoids the temptation of nostalgia at every turn.
It’s a thoroughly joyous film, but not a wistful one – it doesn’t long for the past so much as it is happy to remember it. And when we have a prime pitchman like Varda remembering, it’s a journey eternally in high-spirits. Her Marker-ish (the namesake of which appears in the film as a giant, intentionally badly drawn cat) film plays around with memory, formalism, reflection truth, and all manner of subjects in her ode to influences both filmic and lived (as though a film-maker such as her could separate the two).
There’s an extraordinarily clever moment where Varda turns a mirror around to capture the reflection of the camera operator to establish a certain respect for them, and yet he/she doesn’t move from the camera, and remains blocked by it.
The net effect is that the two, the operator and the camera, morph together, giving us half of one only insofar as it relates to the other, and Varda’s tribute becomes not to human kind nor to cinema but to the eternally interwoven relationship between the two. Varda may be in her twilight years, but she has more life in her than most teenagers would know what to do with.
18. A History of Violence by David Cronenberg
If David Cronenberg is dead-set on going prestige in his old age, what a way to begin! While his more recent films have left something to be desired, A History of Violence is his most compelling purely dramatic effort ever.
While some may yearn for his early meldings of icy, analytic horror and temperamental, giddy body horror – undeniably more personal to Cronenberg in the final analysis – he began his more mundane, diluted-danger career resurgence with a primal blast of pure cinematic power.
Re-centering his patented existential dread in the body of a parable about the never-ending circularity of violence, Cronenberg takes a hatchet to consequence-free action with his own brand of moral nihilism. Moving us into the ethical tension of whether small town diner owner Tom (Viggo Mortensen) truly occupies the body of a former mob enforcer with a hot streak for human dismemberment,
Cronenberg arguably keeps the charade up for too long, leaving the film’s second half with too little time to truly explore his chosen theme. After all, the truth of Tom’s dilemma is obvious, or else there would be no film, but it’s no film-killing flaw.
This is one of the harshest, most corporeal, psychotic prestige pics of the 21st century, finding Cronenberg jumping back and forth between lengthy, burdensome frames that crush his characters to kinetic, rage-addled, drug-induced freak-out spasms of chopped frames where the camera loses control in a lurid flight of fancy that captures better than anything the momentary thrill of giving in to personal passion.
It’s as if the camera can’t decide what perspective it wants, and that is absolutely perfect for Tom’s life on a knife edge. Don’t take your kids to this one; it may not be “horror”, but it is horrific, and no less chilling for the fact.
17. Vera Drake by Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh is no warm heart, but Vera Drake is sour stuff. The story of an elderly maid who performs at-home abortions in secret in 1951, Vera Drake is a haunting, melancholy character portrait in the truest sense of the word.
Leigh is not a stylist’s director, but his films always display a deep understanding and nuanced commitment to the more subtle forms of character and shot placement so as to establish and define his aching humans to note-perfection. He emphasizes too-close-ups to draw us into Vera Drake’s life, and to discomfort us when things get a bit out of hand, and he privileges her in shots to give her a measure of dignity and sympathy when society is crashing down upon her.
It’s bitter, uncomfortable stuff, but Leigh’s undying sympathy for human woe, and a mesmerizing, multifaceted, lived-in performance from Imelda Staunton in the title role connect us to his portrait of pensiveness like nothing else.
16. Sleuth by Joseph Mankiewicz
Mankiewicz the writer always suffered from the tepidity of Mankiewicz the director, or is it that Mankiewicz the director suffering under the weight of Mankiewicz the writer? Either way, his all-time contribution to cinema history, All About Eve, suffers in comparison to the two other anti-Hollywood cotton candy and ice fests of 1950, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. and Nicolas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, for its lack of visual panache to match its playful spitfire on paper.
Still, it’s a hellish bit of pitch-black fun, and Sleuth over twenty years later is too. In fact, it shares quite a bit with Mankiewicz’ earlier film: a dynamite screenplay that deals in two-character study and pits them against each with blackened hearts, vicious and loquacious wit for prime actors to chew on and elevate in the way only true movie stars can, literate gamesmanship a mile high, and, unfortunately, a less than robust visual palette and a too-static camera.
Still, so much is happening on paper, and Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine have so much fun with the one-ups-man-ship of the endless playthings they make of each other, the lack of formal rigor is only a minor blemish on an all-time Sunday afternoon classic party that balances light and dark with a murderous, lurid twist.
15. The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse by Fritz Lang
Doomed to the no man’s land of no-budget B-thrillers for decades following the whirlwind insurrection of his Weimar era high, the monomaniacal Lang, perhaps fittingly, constructed his last film upon his return to Germany thirty years after fleeing the rise of the Nazis.
Lang thrived on anxiety and dread, capturing with cluttered and corporeal anger his contempt for society around him. He needed anger to function, and if his earliest films were angry at Weimar era opulence and pre-Nazi group-think, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse likewise turns its gaze to the fears of the society of its own making: Cold War era iciness and dehumanized, mechanical voyeurism.
With Bauhaus efficiency, it resurrects the Mabuse character of Lang’s past as a new specter for a new age, inducing fear with the preferred means of a more technologically savvy, interconnected time. He uses a series of cameras to observe all even in death, asserting his hand over all and grasping people by his fingertips.
Perhaps fitting its more clinical subject matter, it is a less impassioned film than the two previous Mabuse puzzle pieces; until the end, when Lang goes off the rails with gusto in a fiery, laser-precise shootout and car chase, things are kept to an icy chill. This Mabuse kills as a matter of fact, not because he loves it, and the end result is slightly less nihilist as a result. Still, a strong thriller from a master of the form, and a solid film to go out on too, for this would be his last.
14. Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood
If Clint Eastwood’s career was made on sharing the steely reserve and imposing masculinity of a freight train, Unforgiven is him stopping to discover the blood on the tracks. He recreates his Man With No Name character here, thirty years removed, and ponders with poetic harshness and bruising beauty the cost of human life.
If it skirts nihilism it also finds true human warmth in bitter souls, anguished performances, a terse, invested screenplay, and most notably Eastwood’s sun-drenched, dripping-red images (wonderfully photographed by Jack N. Green, who has since gone on to underachieve spectacularly). It’s a truly harrowing portrait of human loss and the lying myth of Western society. If Westerns are meant to lull America to sleep with a dreamlike storybook of human morality, Unforgiven is a nightmare.
13. A Tale of Winter by Eric Rohmer
The Crown Jewel of Rohmer’s later period Tales of the Four Seasons film opus, A Tale of Winter, seasonal magic aside, is very much its compatriots’ kindred spirit.
Rohmer, who got into the film game a little late owing to his tending to the masts of Cashiers du Cinema when his would-be New Wave deckhands jumped ship and changed the world in the process, also delineated himself from his New Wave familiars with his clear-handed approach and minimalist attachment to dialogue and character.
Unlike Godard, he wasn’t interested in wrecking the joint, and his films seem slightly less futurist as a result. Instead, he delivered carefully textured portraits of romance and modern life with a penchant for poetic reinterpretations of everyday beings given the slightest touch of warm cinematic magic.
He directed human fables simply and elegantly, casting aside film-making clutter and exploiting his actors and actresses, along with his own pen-hand, for all it was worth. His human fables would go on to influence the likes of Richard Linklater for his Before trilogy, and this story of love delayed over five years due to simple everyday misfortune and chance is him at his restrained, luminous best.
12. Amour by Michael Haneke
Amour, Michael Haneke’s grim, clinical dissection of love and death, is anything but a walk in the park. If anything, it is willfully difficult and nihilist even in its plunging deep down into its well of warmth and humanism. It spools out like the aging process it depicts, slow and pain-staking, but with a deterministic sense of unending forward thrust.
Perhaps Haneke’s least enigmatic and most mature film, he trades in his usual ostentatious cinematic rigor for something altogether more detached and willfully aimless, photographing his two elderly subjects, one on the edge of death and the other sharing the ride, like a merciless observer and boxing them off in frames which don’t afford us the pleasure of cutting when the action gets too rough. It is a painful film, but for those who wade through, it provides cinematic rewards aplenty.
11. Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s documentary dissection of the life of Timothy Treadwell is a Herzog film first, and a nature documentary distant second. The fact is that Herzog really isn’t much interested in nature at all, but in his reaction to it, and the way other people, Treadwell, his audience, and every one else, reacts to it.
Grizzly Man is, as it was expected to be, a tone-poem, but it is absolutely not a tone poem to the beauty of nature; it’s a tone poem to human infallibility, and how subjectivity distorts nature and masks it for the hellish nightmare it really is…to Herzog at least. For it is also a deeply subjective film, entirely explicit about its intent; Herzog was fascinated by the footage of Treadwell, and wanted to make permanent his personal reactions to it in a dreary, enigmatic op-ed piece about the subjectivity of all things.
Things are beautiful (oh my, are they beautiful), but the beauty works to disquiet and disturb us, not to ask us to “connect” us with nature. For him, the idea of nature’s beauty is a nasty trick in the nihilist no man’s land of Earth, or a foolish lie. For a man obsessed with the “mojo of location”, this is his ultimate statement to how haunting and destructive it can be.