Sukiyabashi Jiro doesn't look like much, just a small sushi bar located in a subway station in Japan. But according to many experts, this small sushi bar is the best restaurant of its kind in the entire world. Diners wait weeks for the chance to spend about $350 on a twenty course sushi tasting that rarely lasts longer than 20 minutes.
This unique restaurant and its head chef, Jiro Ono, are the subject of the recent documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD (and coming to Netflix Watch Instantly next week). Even if you're not a foodie, this is a film worth watching; a fascinating portrait of the rewards — and the price — of perfectionism. Ono has spent decades honing his craft, thinking about sushi from every considerable angle: how to find the best ingredients, how to produce the best rice and soup, how even to seat the diners for maximum expediency and enjoyment. But, by his own admission, devoting himself so thoroughly to his career made him a less than ideal father, and his two sons, who are both in the restaurant business, seem to treat Jiro more like a boss they admire (and maybe even fear) than a family member.
Sukiyabashi Jiro's many awards and accolades include three stars from the illustrious Michelin Guide. Don't let their weird logo with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man's cousin fool you; Michelin is one of the most respected restaurant guides on the planet. They evaluate on a three star scale. One star means "a good place to stop on your journey." Two stars is "worth a detour." Three stars, the best of the best, says a restaurant is "worth a special journey" all its own just to eat there. And Jiro's sushi restaurant has three stars.
To give the viewer some perspective about Jiro's reputation, director David Gelb interviews a Japanese food critic about Michelin stars and the grading system they employ. He explains how Michelin measures restaurants based on three criteria: quality, originality, and consistency. To receive three stars, it's not enough to be good, you have to be great. And it's not enough to be great; you have to be uniquely great. And it's not enough to be uniquely great; you have to be consistently, uniquely great.
As an amateur foodie (and semiprofessional viewer of Gordon Ramsay reality shows), I was already familiar with the Michelin guide and their vaunted stars. But I'd never heard their ratings explained quite that way. And it struck me in that moment that those same qualifiers — quality, originality, and consistency — might also work well as a means of judging and ranking filmmakers.
After all, the very best directors are the ones who are consistently, uniquely great. Even a hack might stumble into a great movie given the right screenplay and stars. Creating something exciting every single time is a much rarer skill. The directors we follow throughout their careers are the ones who always find new ways to excite us, who never phone it in or take a movie off.
So the question is: if Michelin made a guide for film instead of travel, who would be their ultimate three star directors? There's a couple obvious names right at the pinnacle — Hitchcock, Kubrick, Chaplin — but from there things get interesting. Francis Ford Coppola's highs can stand beside any other director's in history, but his lows are deep and numerous; is he "consistent" enough for the three star tag? Woody Allen works pretty consistently, but has he varied his formula enough to qualify in the "originality" category? Where does Orson Welles fit? Or John Ford? Or Jean-Luc Godard? Or the Coen Brothers?
All questions that might make for stimulating conversation at your next dinner party. You could even cater it with sushi. Tell me your three star directors in the comments section below.