THE OSCARS’ long history of winners based on Hollywood politics and sketchy horse-trading has left the barn door wide open for sites like Rotten Tomatoes to provide a counter-consensus about just what is “best.”
And that is where a burning-bright young director like Ryan Coogler comes in.
Despite all the acclaim for Coogler’s first two films, 2013’s “Fruitvale Station” and 2015’s “Creed,” he has yet to score an Oscars nod as either a writer or director. But Rotten Tomatoes — despite all the controversy it stirs within the industry as an overly simplistic metric — can be a better real-time reflection of who Hollywood’s best current directors are.
And judging by Rotten Tomatoes’s “fresh” scores, Coogler is enjoying nearly the best three-feature career start of any modern director. This Friday’s “Black Panther currently has 97 percent positive reviews, preceded by remarkably consistent numbers from “Fruitvale Station” (94) and “Creed” (95).
Who else has launched quite so impressively in recent decades?
Among this year’s Oscar-nominated directors who have directed at least three films, “Dunkirk’s” Christopher Nolan had an early great run with “Memento” (92), “Insomnia” (92) and “Batman Begins” (84), but they were preceded by his feature debut, “Following” (79). And “Shape of Water’s” Guillermo Del Toro saw two of his earliest feature films, “Cronos” (90) and “The Devil’s Backbone” (92), sandwich his less-acclaimed sophomore feature, “Mimic” (61).
Then there’s this year’s “Phantom Thread” nominee Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s so often hailed as one of the greatest auteurs of his generation. His first three films were “Hard Eight” (83), “Boogie Nights” (93) and “Magnolia” (83) — impressive, but no Coogler triple play batting as a career leadoff.
Among other recent Oscar winners and nominees, quite a few directors have scored two 90 percent-plus marks within their first three feature films that Rotten Tomatoes has deemed worthy of scoring — but not the rare triple feat. That list includes Spike Jonze, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, Richard Linklater, Kenneth Lonergan, David Lynch, Tom McCarthy, Bennett Miller, George Miller, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Also notable with two 90-plus marks early on: Jim Jarmusch and Kar-Wai Wong.
Meanwhile, Coogler’s triple-90 rivals among older generations of directors include Ridley Scott, whose first three scored features were “The Duellists” (92), “Alien” (97) and “Blade Runner” (90); and Ang Lee, with “The Wedding Banquet” (96), “Eat Drink Man Woman” (91) and “Sense and Sensibility” (98). But we must note one fact in Coogler’s favor: Lee’s attempt at directing a Marvel character, with “Hulk,” scored a mere 62.
We’re focusing on Coogler’s live-action colleagues, because Hollywood studio animation can be quite a different production animal (as can documentary filmmaking). That said, it’s worth noting that Pixar co-founder John Lasseter’s first three feature films were “Toy Story” (100 percent fresh), “A Bug’s Life” (92) and “Toy Story 2″ (100) — a nearly unbeatable tally in any form of filmmaking.
Also, we’re keeping it to recent directors: As Slate has noted, Rotten Tomatoes can show a golden-oldies effect, with films from early Hollywood scoring higher on average, and with a gradual decline ever since. If you include classic film, it’s tough to beat director Billy Wilder; three of his first four Rotten Tomatoes-scored features score at 100 percent, and the other sits at 96 percent.
So, among Coogler’s live-action peers of his generation, there’s perhaps one main challenger.
Damien Chazelle — who was recognized by the Oscars, when in 2017 he became the youngest person to win the directing category at age 32 (Coogler turns 32 in May) — had an opening feature-directing trifecta of “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (90 percent), “Whiplash” (94) and “La La Land” (92).
Still, if you go by Rotten Tomatoes as your sole barometer, Coogler tops Chazelle with the highest average over their first three feature films (95.3 vs. 92.0) — making him the top rising major talent of his era.