For most directors, releasing one great film in a year is an ambitious enough feat. Here are ten directors who were not satisfied with that accomplishment and released not one but two great films in a single year.
10. Steven Soderbergh – 2000 – “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic”
“Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” each garnered five Academy Award nominations, earning Soderbergh the distinction of having directed two Best Picture nominees in the same year. “Erin Brockovich” is the true story of a single mother of three who ends up employed at a law firm where she builds a class action lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (for its dishonesty and complacency regarding contaminated groundwater).
Julia Roberts’ turn as Brockovich is one of her best performances, and Soderbergh’s direction is characteristically effective. The underdog-type emotional arc of the story is not anything especially new, but Roberts and Soderbergh give the proceedings a charm that distracts from any predictability in the plot.
“Traffic” is similarly invested in current social issues, specifically the War on Drugs. The film presents three parallel storylines: a police officer and his partner attempting to confront the rampant police and military corruption in Mexico; an Ohioan judge grappling with how to win the unwinnable War on Drugs and rescue his drug-addicted daughter from falling further into her lifestyle; and a Californian woman taking charge of the family drug business following her husband’s imprisonment.
“Traffic” is not a straightforward true story like “Erin Brockovich,” though it does bear resemblance to certain actual events. The story of the judge is the most hackneyed of the three, but it does help to show the futility of political efforts to solve the drug problem.
The other two storylines are more compelling, and Soderbergh distinguishes the three plot strands from each other with highly saturated blue and yellow color correction. “Traffic” is not perfect, but it’s an admirable attempt to highlight some of the most pressing aspects of the War on Drugs, and the last scene is one of Soderbergh’s best endings.
9. Mel Brooks – 1974 – “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”
Mel Brooks made his two most iconic films in the same year (although an argument could be made for “The Producers” as most iconic – and maybe even “Spaceballs,” if we’re being generous). “Blazing Saddles” is a goofy send-up of Hollywood Westerns, telling the story of a black sheriff named Bart who polices a town populated entirely by white people with the surname “Johnson.”
Brooks throws absolutely everything at the wall, and much of it sticks: racial satire, musical numbers, blatant anachronisms, fourth wall shattering, visual gags. There’s plenty of lowbrow humor, but there’s also plenty of amusing absurdism and incisive commentary on filmmaking and Hollywood whitewashing.
“Young Frankenstein” is just as silly but feels more focused; its monochrome cinematography is more restrained than the colorful aesthetic of “Blazing Saddles,” and its finale is not as gleefully off-the-wall. The protagonist is not Victor Frankenstein but rather his grandson, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who asks that his name be pronounced “Fronkensteen” to avoid association with his grandfather.
But of course Frederick does not stay away from his grandfather’s infamous experiments for long. Unlike the humor in “Blazing Saddles” – which often comes directly from left field – the comedy here mostly stays within the confines of the mood and setting, abandoning meta humor and anachronism in favor of clever parody and reconfiguration of the Frankenstein story itself.
8. Clint Eastwood – 2006 – “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima”
Clint Eastwood’s 2006 double feature about the Battle of Iwo Jima gives one movie to the American side and one movie to the Japanese side. “Flags of Our Fathers,” concentrates on three of the soldiers who raised the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi, following their experiences during the battle as well as their struggles after their return to the U.S.
This intercutting between the U.S. scenes and the Iwo Jima scenes is admittedly clumsy at times, giving the film a strange lack of inertia. However, the alternating structure also provides a compelling contrast between visceral combat sequences and quieter, more contemplative moments. “Flags of Our Fathers” is no masterpiece, but it is a solid examination of the emotional effects of war – and even more importantly, the emotional effects of being hailed as a hero for participating in war.
While “Flags of Our Fathers” is an admirable effort, “Letters From Iwo Jima” is safely the better film. The two central characters are General Kuribayashi and Private Saigo; they have intermittent contact throughout the battle, with Kuribayashi saving Saigo on more than one occasion. In “Flags,” the emotional heft is mostly back home, found in the residual emotional impacts of war. In “Letters,” the emotional heft is all on the battlefield, in the longing for home and the crushing obligation to be honorable to the point of suicide.
Kuribayashi and Saigo are both sensitive and compassionate characters, and our concern for them does not decrease because they are fighting for the wrong side. These are men whose only thought seems to be their immediate duties: honorable conduct and the defense of their homeland. These pursuits lead them toward tragic and poignant ends, and Eastwood observes their journey with honesty and sympathy. In my estimation, “Letters” is both one of Eastwood’s best films and one of the best war films of the 2000s.
7. Krzystof Kieslowski – 1988 – “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love”
These two “short films” – which are actually feature length – are expanded episodes of Kieslowski’s legendary ten-part miniseries “The Decalogue.” “A Short Film About Killing” has been credited with helping to overturn the death penalty in Poland. Kieslowski shows us two killings: a young man named Jacek brutally kills a taxi driver, and then the state brutally kills him for what he has done.
Kieslowski does not inspire sympathy for Jacek’s crime – the murder scene is prolonged, messy, and agonizing to watch – but he does inspire some sympathy for Jacek himself, providing backstory about Jacek’s dead sister. Kieslowski does not suggest that Jacek should not be punished for his crimes; he simply suggests that killing Jacek only perpetuates the cycle of violence, as it repeats the same action of which Jacek is guilty. Both killings are presented with cold-blooded, unflinching honesty, and Piotr, Jacek’s lawyer, is the film’s only voice of compassion.
“A Short Film About Love” is the story of Tomek, a nineteen-year-old who spies on a middle-aged woman named Magda who lives in an apartment complex across from him. His one-sided voyeurism eventually evolves into actual contact with her, and Kieslowski interrogates the complex ties between love, infatuation, and sex.
The film has a more thought-provoking ending than the episode version, and everything that leads up to it is a masterclass in character and plot development. Tomek and Magda learn from each other, with Tomek’s clueless (and creepy) emotional earnestness contrasting Magda’s cynical reduction of love to pure physicality.
6. Victor Fleming – 1939 – “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind”
In Fleming’s entire filmography, these are the two films that have endured the most, and they are discussed much more frequently than their director is. “The Wizard of Oz” has been absorbed into pop iconography more than maybe any other film of its decade (well, save for “King Kong” and “Frankenstein,” perhaps).
Though the songs are just as iconic as the visuals, you can watch with the sound turned off (or with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”), and the film succeeds purely as a collection of memorable images: the tornado, the Yellow Brick Road, the field of poppies, the Emerald City.
“Gone With the Wind” is much less fanciful but just as visually stunning. Set during and after the American Civil War, the film follows spoiled Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara as she tries to hold onto both her family’s land and her romantic interest, Rhett Butler.
While “Gone With the Wind” has been fairly criticized for portraying the sins of the antebellum South – including slavery – in a nostalgic light, this attitude does reflect the mindset of the film’s selfish heroine; and by the end, Scarlett learns that she cannot always get what she wants, that the old idea of the South has been rightly left in the past, even if she does not want to accept it.