22 (5) All-Time Great Directors and Their Final Films

Fifteen years ago yesterday, on July 16th, 1999, "Eyes Wide Shut" was released in theaters. It's notable for a number of reasons—the last on-screen team up of then husband-and-wife A-list duo Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, being the longest continuous film shoot in history, and being an arthouse drama with strong scenes of sexuality released in the midst of the summer season that almost earned an NC-17 rating. But more than anything else, the picture is notable for having been the final picture of one of the most acclaimed and admired filmmakers in the history of the medium, Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick had kept the film under wraps throughout the multi-year production (it had begun shooting in November 1996), but finally screened a cut to his stars and backers Warner Bros on March 1st, 1999. Six days later, he passed away of a heart attack at the age of 70, the director sadly failing to live to see the film's release four months later.

With the film back in our thoughts thanks to that anniversary, we got to talking around the Playlist espresso machine about the last films of great filmmakers. Barring a few exception who take early retirement, like Steven Soderbergh or Alan Parker, directors tend to keep on working until they drop, which is great, but has the side effect of meaning that your swan song isn't always planned: if the unthinkable happens, or if old age catches up with you, the film you just finished can be terrific, or terrible.

So, to mark the anniversary of Kubrick's final picture, we've taken a look at the last movies from twenty-two of the greatest filmmakers in history. Were they fitting endings to glorious careers? Or ignoble ways to wrap up decades of fine work? Let us know your thoughts on the movies in the comments section, and let us know your favorite, and least favorite, swan song pictures too.

Alfred Hitchcock - "Family Plot" (1976)
Lights out, applause, curtain call. While not exactly meant to be his last hurrah, the deteriorating health of Alfred Hitchcock forced this light mystery-thriller to have the unwanted burden of being the final credit on a cinematic legend’s resume. The film's reputation is pretty low as a result, but while its detractors aren’t entirely wrong (it’s no gem, just a bit unimpressive and prosaic), it’s enjoyable enough. "Family Plot" finds Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern as they search for the missing nephew/heir of Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), an elderly women with a large fortune to squander. Their eyes set on the $10k reward/finder’s fee, the couple eventually sniff him out, though they get more than what they bargained for when he’s discovered to have changed his identity after committing a murder. But just add it to the list of red flags: he’s a successful kidnapper, wealthy jeweler, and last but not least, played by the eternally intimidating William Devane. If you hear anything positive about this movie, people usually reference the hilarious “car chase"—which is misleading, and not only because it only involves a single car charging down the road with its brakes cut. The filmmaker manages to play with conflicting tones here: he cuts like a maniac between the interiors of the car (where Dern and Harris banter) and the driver’s POV as they swerve and barrel down a mountain road. It was a somewhat new approach for the director (comedy was always present in his work, but it's particularly entwined with the suspense here), and proved that even in ill-health he could deliver a highly thrilling sequence. Things wrap up with the inevitable bow at the end, and Harris gives a wink to the camera—perhaps too cute to close a movie, but a rather touching, playful final shot of a career. [C]

Andrei Tarkovsky - "The Sacrifice" (1986)
Completed shortly before his death from terminal lung cancer in 1986, Tarkovsky’s last film may be the apogee of everything he ever tried to achieve in cinema. Bergman’s fondness for Tarkovsky has been well documented and the feeling was mutual; the Swedish-set picture starred Erland Josephson—a key Bergman actor who led several of the Swede’s pictures including "Scenes From A Marriage," "Autumn Sonata" and "Fanny & Alexander”—and featured the painterly cinematography of Sven Nykvist. Faith and the absence of spirituality were always central Tarkovskian themes and both are examined and tested in this hypnotic morality drama. Josephson plays a journalist and former philosopher whose birthday is interrupted by the news that WWIII has erupted and mankind is but a few short hours away from annihilation. A devout atheist, in his despair, Josephson prays to God, even offering up his son’s life if war can be avoided. He sleeps with a witch to show his fealty to God, but the next day all is well and it’s unclear if the preceding events were just a dream. Shot in Tarkovsky’s customarily long takes (some that reach almost 10 minutes) the film clocks in at just under three hours and is perhaps the filmmaker’s most dream-like, in a career characterized by hypnagogic films. A gigantic house was built specially for the production and when cameras failed to capture its incineration in one long tracking shot, the house was then faithfully reconstructed and once again burned down to ground—Terrence Malick and Jack Fisk would be proud. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, the film would received the Grand Jury award, and the FIPRESCI and Ecumenical Jury prizes, but by the end of the year, the filmmaker would be dead, passing away on December 29th. [A]

Ingmar Bergman - “Saraband” (2003)
Unusually for this list but perhaps predictably for Ingmar Bergman, ever the most thoughtful and considered of filmmakers, “Saraband” was announced as the director’s last film even before it was shot. Ostensibly a made-for-Swedish TV sequel to 1973’s “Scenes From a Marriage” (which was also originally shot for television), “Saraband” was, in fact followed in 2007 by a TV-only recording of a Strindberg play, “Spoksonaten.” But “Saraband” is rightly regarded as Bergman’s final film, not just because it was the last to get a theatrical release, but also because of the fine-boned, sensitive way it returns to many of the director’s recurring themes, in a manner that could almost be self-parodic were it not for its inarguably hypnotic, sincere depth of feeling. Regulars Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson (the only actor, we believe to appear here twice; he also stars in Tarkovsky’s deeply Bergman-indebted “The Sacrifice”) reprise their roles as Marianne and Johann. But years later they have lost touch, each having married again in the meantime until Marianne makes the spontaneous decision to visit Johann, now in his eighties, and bears witness to the destructive, warped relationship between his son and cello virtuoso granddaughter. It’s tempting to classify these final films as either bang or whimper, but Bergman’s swan song neither reaches the towering zenith of his greatest work, nor is it disposable, and it is very far from the embarrassment some other directors suffered in their dotage. Instead it’s a lovely, regretful, questioning coda to a cinematic oeuvre of unparalleled humanism and heart, formally a little cramped but thematically expansive and full of grace; a symphony in a minor key. [B+]

Krzysztof Kieslowski - 'Three Colors: Red" (1994)
As one line in the film puts it, the "fraternity of strangers" might be the single unifying theme and obsession in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's work: how one person on the planet could be thinking something at the exact time as someone else in another part of the world and never know, but maybe could feel a curious sensation at the time. How deja vu or a ringing in the ears could mean something deeper. How those unknown to us are perhaps not strangers at all. A cynical person at heart, but with a deep curiosity of the human condition, some have suggested the theme of fraternity in “Red” were a self-critique of Kieslowski's own selfishness. Whatever the case may be, the ravishing and sumptuous final conclusion of The Three Colors trilogy is haunting, poignant and unforgettable. Starring his muse Irene Jacob yet again, it centers on two polar opposite strangers who by chance—via an injured dog—become more and more connected, bonding far beyond they would ever imagine. Part time model Valentine (Jacobs) accidentally runs over a German shepherd and then eventually tracks down the owner, a reclusive and retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) soured by old age and the way his life has turned out. He's a nasty man, who Valentine discovers is abusing his powers and secretly recording his neighbors’ phone calls for entertainment value (and to continue his former vocation in some kind of perverse manner). Though she is morally disgusted with him, the two find themselves inexorably drawn to one another suggesting a missed connection in some part of time they did not exist in concurrently. Typically mysterious, “Red” is even tentatively optimistic and is a striking, poetic meditation on alienation, connection, kinship and togetherness beyond our basic understanding. Widely expected to take the Palme D'Or at Cannes that year but beaten out by "Pulp Fiction," the film was also nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director. It proved to be the filmmaker’s final statement—he retired shortly thereafter and died less than 10 months later during open heart surgery. [A+]

Akira Kurosawa - “Madadayo” (1993)
Few directors get to choose the film they go out on, but some embrace their mortality with their final film more than others. Japanese master Akira Kurosawa didn’t actually intend “Madadayo” to be the final picture of his 57-year career: he spent the next five years writing scripts, but an accident in 1995 that confined him to a wheelchair prevented him from fulfilling his desire to die on a film set. But that just makes this quiet, tender little film, and its title (which translates as "Not Yet") all the more poignant. Based loosely on the life of academic and writer Hyakken Uchida, it stars Tatsuo Matsumara as a German professor who retires on his 60th birthday, just as the Second World War gets under way. Every year from then on, his former students gather to pay tribute to him, with the professor beginning each celebration with the titular toast of "Not yet." Like a sort of “Oldboyhood,” we see him age over decades, surviving an American air raid, adopting a cat, and sinking quietly into depression, and it’s a real outlier in Kurosawa’s career as a result: he was one of cinema’s greatest plotters, and yet has so little interest in narrative here that the film wasn’t especially well-received at the time (true of most of his work post-”Ran”). But it seems like a misreading: this is Kurosawa coming to terms with, embracing, and defying old age and oncoming death by, in part, paying tribute to another Japanese master, Ozu, with the film feeling like a very conscious nod to the “Tokyo Story” helmer. Perhaps there’s a reason it hasn’t entered the canon in the way “Seven Samurai” or “Yojimbo” did, but it’s nevertheless a lovely, lyrical and very personal way for one of the greatest filmmakers we ever had to bow out. [B+]

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