If you asked me who the best film director is right now my answer would be Christopher Nolan, no thought needed. If you wanted me to say who I thought the best director of all time was though, then I’d struggle. Steven Spielberg is probably a contender, as is Hitchcock. Both of these men’s reputations are well earned. David Fincher has turned out some amazing movies as well though, as has Kathryn Bigelow, and I adore the style and sensibilities of Guillermo del Toro. It changes all the time as well, aside of Nolan, Denis Villeneuve and Alfonso Cuarón are making incredible films right now and while they may only be starting out Greta Gerwig and Barry Jenkins have both got me excited for anything they make in the future.
There is one guy that never comes up in this conversation though who had an incredible run from the mid eighties to the early nineties, at the precise time I was developing from a kid who kind of liked movies into a full blown cinema nerd. Surprisingly despite calling the shots on over twenty films he isn’t even listed as a director on IMDb, being described instead as an actor, writer and producer. What’s more, within his filmography he has two of my most favourite films. My all time top five might be different from day to day but these two would always be in it and this guy churned them out back to back, just fifteen months apart.
If you know me, or indeed if you know where the name of this blog comes from, then you’ve probably realised that I am talking about Rob Reiner. This man, already a double Emmy winning actor and acclaimed comedy writer (once paired with Steve Martin no less) suddenly broke into films with the beautifully observed mock rock doc This is Spinal Tap in 1984. The Sure Thing, a dated but witty teen comedy that made John Cusack a star, followed in 85.
Then check out this little list: Stand By Me in 86, The Princess Bride in 87, When Harry Met Sally in 89, 1990 Misery and 1992 A Few Good Men. North came out in 1994 to a critical mauling and box office failure (I’ve never seen it) but rolling with the punches Reiner reteamed with his A Few Good Men screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and gave us The American President in 1995; a film that was very much the precursor for The West Wing and sits comfortably alongside it in quality. Since then he’s made one other movie you’ll have heard of; The Bucket List, a few you might recall; Rumour Has It and LBJ, and several that will have passed you by completely, before seeming to step away from directing a few years ago. Nothing can take away from him being the man who made a couple of the greatest Steven King adaptations, the romcom that effectively launched a genre that has never been able to measure up and the movie that is the most sweetly but dryly hilarious film in this age or any other. Seriously, can you name a movie other than The Princess Bride where the comedy has not dated one bit? You can’t can you? I know the gender politics could be better and the visual effects look cheap but the script and performances are genuinely timeless.
In fact the comedy in both When Harry Met Sally, The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap has a real understated confidence. None of the gags in any of those films are overplayed and the hit rate is exceptional. What is the funniest moment in Spinal Tap, is it Derek Smalls getting caught in the pod, the tiny Stone Henge or the band getting lost on the way to the stage? Maybe it’s Nigel’s ridiculous rant about the tiny bread, their reactions to the bad album reviews, getting second billing to a puppet show but the bigger dressing room, the delicate melody with the indelicate name or the amps that go up to eleven. It could be any one of these or more. What about When Harry Met Sally, what’s the best scene? The New York Deli? Pictionary? The wagon wheel coffee table, the suddenly shared cab, the batting cage, Surrey with a Fringe on Top, the drive to New York, Sally’s recurring dream, meeting at the airport, the pecan pie museum, the days of the week underpants or any one of the interviewed couples that break up the action? Too many to choose from. I won’t even get started on the quotable lines from The Princess Bride because it is most of the script.
Of course in the case of these last two films much of this is down to the writing of Nora Ephron and William Goldman but it says something about Reiner as a successful comedy writer himself that he recognised and showcased the genius of those he worked with. Also, all of Reiner’s films, his comedies and his other work, also benefit hugely from impeccable casting. He got some career best performances from people like River Phoenix, Kathy Bates, Carrie Fisher and Jack Nicholson. Perhaps this was part of what was great about Reiner as a director, that he knew the strengths of others and was a brilliant collaborator. That demands a certain lack of ego which does not a great visionary normally make. This would explain how a film maker with little to no auteuristic stylings was able to create such good work across a range of different types of films, and how he occasionally might have dropped a ball. Does this make him a great film director? I don’t know. It certainly allowed him to make some of the greatest films though.