With this week's release of the American remake of Oldboy, I decided to take a look back at the career of the film's director Spike Lee. Lee has had one of the more interesting careers in Hollywood, and his prolific nature has virtually ensured that if you're not a fan of his most recent film, he'll have another one out soon enough. Having started off directing some of the most incendiary films of the late 80s and early 90s, he's now moved into a career balancing personal pictures (Red Hook Summer, Miracle at St. Anna) with director-for-hire work (Inside Man) and documentary work (When the Levees Broke). While I'm certainly not a fan of all of his films-- I could live the rest of my life and never give another thought to She Hate Me or Girl 6-- he's made some undeniably great ones. Here's my list of his top five films.
5. Bamboozled (2000)
Structurally, the film is a bit all over the map, but 2000's Bamboozled might be Lee's most incendiary film. Set in the early days of reality television, days when it seemed nothing was off-limits, a television producer (Damon Wayans) pitches a modern day minstrel show to be performed in traditional blackface. The show's stars Savion Glover & Tommy Davidson are reluctant at first to participate, but also need the work, and the devastating toll that the show takes on them forms the film's emotional core. There are some fantastic supporting performances by Mos Def, Paul Mooney & Michael Rapaport (playing a character that is Lee's most direct attack on Quentin Tarantino ever), and while the film's climax takes things a shade over the top, this is still essential viewing. Every year when some stupid quasi-celebrity or meathead athlete shows up for some function in blackface, I think of the final moments of this film, and it reminds me of what a horrendous legacy was left behind by the days when blackface was considered entertainment.
4. Summer of Sam (1999)
1999 was a year that found many directors (David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, The Wachowskis) unleashing a torrent of visually stylistic masterpieces on the world, and I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to put Spike Lee's Summer of Sam comfortably in their company. It's a fictional story set in the all-too real summer of 1977 when New York City was held hostage by The Son of Sam serial killer. While I think it may be a case of style over substance as some of the subplots could have been jettisoned without losing much from the overall story, it's one of Lee's most assured directorial efforts, and his use of music is never better than it is in this film. The centerpiece montage set to The Who's "Baba O'Riley" is still amongst my favorite uses of a song in a film, and the supporting cast featuring Adrien Brody, Ben Gazarra, Michael Rispoli & Patti LuPone is one of the best Lee has ever assembled.
3. Malcolm X (1992)
The word epic doesn't quite cover 1992's Malcolm X. Denzel Washington gives hands down the best performance of his career in a film that spans the rise and tragic demise of one of the great warriors in the battle to secure equal rights for black Americans. While many fans of the film may rank this one higher than I have, I admit that I've only seen it from beginning to end maybe twice, but I find myself re-watching a handful of scenes from the film over and over again, particularly Malcolm's trip to The Audobon Ballroom, where he would be assassinated, set to Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." It's probably the single greatest scene Lee has ever put on film. And as for Washington's performance, it's electrifying and connected in a way that he hasn't been since, and it honestly feels like a performance he's been trying to recapture for most of his career.
2. 25th Hour (2002)
After 9/11, the world waited to see how New York based filmmakers would handle the tragedy and its aftermath, and Spike Lee rose to the occasion to deliver the quintessential film about post-9/11 New York City. 25th Hour is ostensibly a film about a drug dealer (Edward Norton) enjoying his last 24 hours of freedom before shipping off to prison for seven years, but at its core, the film is more about the dual love/hate relationship he has with himself, his friends, and most importantly his city. The city has never felt more isolated than it does in this meditation on masculinity, yet it also feels stronger and more assured than it has in decades. If Summer of Sam was about a city overreacting to numerous catastrophic events, 25th Hour is about a city that emerged from the other side of an enormous catastrophe more resolved and more unified than ever, despite its countless differences. It's also almost worth watching just for Brian Cox's final monologue as he drives his son to prison, and the montage that accompanies it. It radiates with a power that can only be delivered by a filmmaker in complete control of his craft.
1. Do The Right Thing (1989)
In 1989, on just his third narrative feature, Spike Lee managed to create the quintessential film about race relations in America. Do The Right Thing is the rare film that achieves the monumental task of presenting a multitude of characters on both sides of the issue without demonizing any of them. Set in and around the fictional Sal's Pizzeria in Brooklyn, Lee weaves a tapestry of characters from Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) the black man whose death at the hands of the cops sets a riot in motion, to Sal (Danny Aiello) the pizza shop owner and his openly racist son Pino (John Turturro), to Mookie (Lee) the black pizza delivery guy who works for Sal, and dozens of other characters in between. It gives open and equal air to almost everyone, and presents the issue of race as more than black and white, but a series of murky greys that yields no easy answers. Lee's use of music is second to none once again, using Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as the anthem of the riot that ends the film, but also as a cry of desperation for a series of characters that will never be the same again. Some 24 years after its release, Do the Right Thing still burns with an intensity that Lee has yet to match on film, and it will likely remain his masterpiece.
Honorable Mention: Clockers & 4 Little Girls