The Top 10 Movies of 2019

1 01 2020

176 movies later, and it’s pencils down on the year in film.

Like always, I wait until the very last minute to file a top 10 list. I either want to spend time rewatching films to make sure I think they can withstand scrutiny in the future or cramming in a final few. But with the notable exception of a late-surging final entrant and some jostling for position among the top five titles, my favorite films of the year have been remarkably stable.

I’ll have slightly more profound ruminating around my best of the decade list that will drop shortly than I do here. Normally I opine on some grander theme or mood, perhaps a through-line I find or something else that makes this more than just a random scattering of movies with numbers attached. Turns out, even after celebrating 10 years at doing this in 2019, I may only have enough juice in me for a single year-end thematic list.

Anyways, that’s enough with my chitter-chatter … because, after all, you really just came to know the movies and rankings! Though I alluded to how easy this year’s list was to assemble, I do want to give a shout-out to a few other films that meant a lot in 2019:

  • “Clemency,” an extraordinary look at America’s prison system and the moral choices it forces from all who interact with it – as seen through the eyes of a black woman
  • “Knives Out,” the kind of joyous original entertainment for smart moviegoers that I spend all year carping for more of, delivered with a killer topical twinge
  • “The Irishman,” a film with such multitudes about life, art and death that a single watch feels like only skimming the surface
  • “Transit,” a groundbreaking merger of period piece and current political drama that makes bold aesthetic choices seem simple
  • “High Life,” which taught me more about how to watch a movie than anything I’ve seen outside of a film studies classroom

Now, on with the show…

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Top 10 of 2018 (My 10th Top 10)

31 12 2018

My goodness, have I really been doing these for 10 years now? I know I play the gobsmacked card at just about every one of these milestones, but when you take a step back and think about how time moves both quickly and imperceptibly, it has the power to bowl you over.

It’s so interesting to look back at my various top 10 lists and see how my top choices reflect how I’ve changed since writing this blog. There was my anxiety about being a loner in high school (“Up in the Air,” “Black Swan“), the awakening of a political consciousness as I watched cinema respond to the Great Recession in real time (“Win Win,” “The Queen of Versailles“), a freakout about identity after a semester abroad revealed a new side of myself (“American Hustle“) and the desire for deep connection and feeling in a dark world (“Manchester by the Sea,” “Call Me by Your Name“). Oh, and there was also a period where I fully believe I chose inarguable masterpieces (“The Immigrant” in 2014, “Inside Out” in 2015).

Who knows how I’ll feel looking back at this crop of choices down the line? I can’t worry about it now or think like that, though. As I can now see, learning more about these movies has also led to me learning more about myself. One unifying theme I picked out of the 2018 list is that six are roughly 90 minutes or less, and none are over two hours long. I watched 173 new releases in 2018 and spent over 875 hours watching movies during the year (thanks, Letterboxd, for that frightening statistic). Making that time count and not wasting it apparently counts for a lot with me these days!

A final note for longtime readers of Marshall and the Movies – namely, friends and family – I’m sure you’ve noticed that I am posting less and less on the blog these days. My work has primarily shifted to doing freelance writing on other websites so I can make a little bit of money off my words. I don’t regret this pivot, but I do wish that I’d done a better job about communicating that change to people who mostly come here (and to the Facebook page) looking for those takes. So, in 2019, I resolve to be better about sharing my work to my first real audience.

Thank you all, as always, for your time and support. No matter how your 2018 went, I hope your 2019 is filled with joy and splendor, be it cinematic or real.

So, without further ado, my 10 favorite films of 2018…

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LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Films of 2018

1 01 2018

2017 is over! 2018 is here!

After a year when my top 10 list only featured one of my stalwart favorite filmmakers, I am very excited to see a number of great directors preparing exciting new works. I had to narrow it down to 10 just for my own sake, but here are some honorable mentions just to show you how stacked 2018 is going to be.

  • Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle In Time”
  • Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs”
  • Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favorite”
  • Laszlo Nemes’ “Sunset”
  • Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows”
  • David Lowery’s “The Old Man and the Gun”
  • Damien Chazelle’s “First Man”
  • Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born”
  • Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers”
  • Robert Zemeckis’ “The Women of Marwen”
  • Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “Luxembourg”
  • Melanie Laurent’s “Galveston”

But without further ado, here are 10 movies that I will be anticipating the most in the coming year…

#10

“Ocean’s 8”
Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch
Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway

…and Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Helena Bonham Carter. I, for one, welcome this matriarchy to take over the summer screens.

#9

“Under the Silver Lake”
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell
Starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough and Topher Grace

Mitchell’s last film “It Follows” has lingered in my mind so much to the point that his follow-up is basically guaranteed a spot here. Working with Garfield and Keough, who are making some fascinating career moves, has me especially intrigued.

#8

“Boy Erased”
Written for the screen and directed by Joel Edgerton
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton

Lucas Hedges is on a roll between “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – one heck of a hat trick. The best might be yet to come with his role as a boy forced into conversion therapy for his sexuality.

#7

“High Life”
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Nick Laird and Zadie Smith
Starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth and Juliette Binoche

The Robert Pattinson arthouse director trophy case continues to grow as he notches a film with French icon Claire Denis. It’s a sci-fi script that Zadie Smith has a hand in? Um, yes please.

#6

“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Written for the screen and directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Dave Franco, Pedro Pascal and Ed Skrein

Barry Jenkins tackling James Baldwin should get everyone excited. Full stop. I cannot wait to see him bring Baldwin’s searing treatment of race in America to the big screen.

#5

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter
Starring Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer

I am so curious to see how the unique, quirky narration style of Maria Semple’s novel gets translated into cinematic language. The book is in good hands with Linklater and Blanchett.

#4

“Tully”
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis and Ron Livingston

The “Young Adult” redemption tour is coming. Get ready.

#3

“Backseat”
Written and directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell

After “The Big Short” tore pre-recession Wall Street to shreds, I’m eager to see what Adam McKay has in store for Dick Cheney. It will certainly have fangs.

#2

“Widows”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn
Starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell

A melding of the minds behind “12 Years a Slave” and “Gone Girl” is the combination I didn’t know I needed. And now I just can’t wait for it to arrive.

#1

“The Beach Bum”
Written and directed by Harmony Korine
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and Isla Fisher

SPRING BREAK FOREVER. About time Harmony Korine has a new movie for me to hook into my veins.

 





Top 10 of 2017: Connections, Failed and Imagined

31 12 2017

Per New Year’s Eve tradition, it’s time to unveil my top 10 list for the year. 2017 was … an interesting year, to say the least. I’m writing this paragraph at the tail end of a screener binge trying to catch as many movies as possible before sitting down to bang out this piece. Funny how you can see 148 films and somehow feel like you’ve failed to get a sense of the year. That’s a far cry from the glut I consumed in 2015, a whopping 200 films in the calendar year.

Yet I feel good about that, somehow. This was a banner year for me keeping my New Year’s resolutions, one of which was to rewatch more movies to gain a greater appreciation of what I’ve already seen. Another was to immerse myself more in classic cinema to better understand the influences of my favorite filmmakers. (If, for some reason, you feel compelled to see my media consumption habits in detail, check out my Letterboxd page.) Still, I don’t think many of you are going to shake a finger at me for seeing as much as I did. From 148 films, there’s more than enough to make a top 10 list.

(Also, I moved to New York in November. I had a lot on my plate besides just watching movies.)

An odd thing to note about my favorites this year: the top 5 has stayed unchanged since late May. That’s in part because I went to Sundance (and made the correct film choices), but I think something larger is at play here. Expectations. Filmmakers whose latest works I was eagerly anticipating largely did not deliver on the promise of their prior films. On the list below, the only director who I would have considered myself a devotee of would be Noah Baumbach.

The upside here is that now I have many new projects to eagerly anticipate! Several of these directors were ones that had just never quite clicked for me. Heck, one of them directed a movie which garnered this site’s only F rating.

I always construct this list purely on merit and feeling, never trying to meet any kind of quota or make any particular statement. But 2017’s list naturally came together to paint a picture of the industry I’d like to see. 3 films are directed by women, 3 films are debut features, 2 films are by black directors and 2 films are by queer filmmakers. There are studio films, indies and Netflix releases. Quality work is coming from every area of the business, and we need to seek out and amplify it as well as its creators.

Before I do my rundown, I suppose I should offer a word about the connective fiber between these films and the year at large. I admit to looking at this group and not having anything jump out immediately. A contemplative walk around the block made me realize that these movies are mostly, to some degree, about people trying to connect. It might be with family members, the love of one’s life, someone’s physical surroundings, or with one’s self. It is likely in spite of some greater obstacle, be they systemic ills like racism and sexism or merely personal hurdles like insecurity and timidity.

This is simplistic to the point of mockery, and I scoff at myself for even being the kind of writer who’d hang an entire year on a concept so nebulously defined that it could come to encompass virtually anything. But in a year when it seemed tough to reconcile seemingly disparate realities and communicate deeply-held values, I’m willing to venture out a bit on this flimsy limb. (Also, some of these don’t really have much to do with “connection” at all! So what!)

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INTERVIEW: David Lowery, director of “A Ghost Story”

3 10 2017

In July, I was able to interview David Lowery for a piece I wrote on Film School Rejects that contextualized his film “A Ghost Story” within a canon of existential films made by Texan directors that includes Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” I had a full twenty minutes with him, which was more than enough to get the few quotes I needed to round out the piece. So with the permission of my editor, I’m publishing the full transcript of our talk here. There were just too many good tidbits here not to share!

Also, if you haven’t seen the film … you probably shouldn’t read this.

I’ve heard you say that A Ghost Story contains some elements of autobiography – as such, did you have to shoot it in Texas? Was there any other place you could have – or would have wanted to – shoot it anywhere else?

I didn’t have to shoot it in Texas, but it definitely made the entire process easier both in a practical sense and an emotional one.

In a practical sense, it’s easier for me to make movies in Texas – especially at the scale we were making this movie on. I have the ability to call in favors in my hometown in a way I can’t anywhere else, and when you’re making a movie on this budget, that is something you just have to do. So on a very practical level, I was just able to make this movie in Texas. If I tried to make this somewhere else, I wouldn’t have.

But insomuch as it is a personal movie that does contain elements of autobiography, I wanted to feel like I was making a movie in my own backyard. I wanted to feel like I was making a movie in my own backyard. I wanted it to take place in the same landscapes that I live in (I still make my home here). I could have made exactly the same movie on a shot-by-shot basis somewhere else, and it wouldn’t have changed that much. It wouldn’t have been that quantifiably different. But it wouldn’t have been as personal to me. Because I wanted this one to be personal, it was important to let that connection extend to the geography in which the film takes place.

What is Texas to you? How has the experience of growing up and living in this state inform your sensibilities as a filmmaker?

It’s funny because I grew up wanting to get out of Texas. I moved here when I was 7, and I was not a fan. My mother’s from Fort Worth, and she predisposed me to not like Texas as a child. She did not love Texas –  I spent the first couple of years in my life in Wisconsin, and she was very happy there. When we moved to Texas, it was a disappointment in her life that she had to go back to the state that she was born and raised in. So I was naturally predisposed to not like it also.

As I got older, I wanted to stake out, or leave the state and move to New York or LA to find my path on one of the two coasts. That was definitely my plan for a long time, but at some point – I guess, rather than going into the long autobiography of my history with Texas – I stopped disliking it and become nonchalant about it. And then that nonchalance eventually turned into an affection. And then that affection turned into a part of my identity. At a certain point, I realized that I identified as a Texan, and it was important for me to stay here and keep making movies here.

Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story

From my understanding, this started as a personal story about the decision you and your wife were making about moving out of your house. At what point did you expand the story to encompass a more cosmic perspective? 

It was there from the very beginning. I often conflate the domestic and the cosmic on a daily basis, so I make those jumps all the time in my day-to-day life. It wasn’t that big of a leap when it came to writing that for the script. In fact, the very first image that I wrote for the screenplay was of the cosmos at dawn and the camera dropping down to find this little house. That’s not the first shot in the movie anymore, but it’s pretty close to the beginning and it’s the first thing I wrote down. That was always part of the story.

And the ghost was always part of the story, too. There was never a version of this movie that didn’t have the ghost there. But all these ideas entwined in my subconscious in just the right way that when I sat down to write the film, they were all already there. It wasn’t a matter of trying to find a way to represent my own personal history on film, nor did I just simply want to make a haunted house movie. In order to make a movie about life in a cosmic sense, all those things just naturally intertwined themselves as I was writing the script. There was no cart before any particular horse, in this case.

Which came first – your decision to take time as the subject of the film, or your decision to use time as the building blocks of the experience? Like the duration of the pie-eating scene or the monologue at the party.

Both of those, while intrinsically related, came from two different places. My initial idea was to let the temporal aspects of the movie simply exist in the filmmaking. It was going to be a movie comprised of very long takes and very few compositions. And I wanted it to be a movie that indulged in my own affection for slow cinema. I knew this would be the type of film that could utilize that in an effective way, it wouldn’t just be a stylistic trick, and I really wanted to lean into that – the idea of using time as a way to tell a story in a visual sense.

At a certain point, my own obsession with time as something that I process as a human being came into focus as a narrative element, not just a part of the form but a part of the content as well. The monologue is where that came into play most acutely. I can only assume that on a subconscious level, that was the result of me writing something that was already so temporally focused on a formal level. Eventually it just became text in the script in addition to just subtext. But when I look back now, they seem completely related to the other. But in the process of writing the film, the movie wasn’t going to use time the way it wound up using time. That was something that came about naturally while I was writing it.

I’ve heard you talk about how Shane Carruth came in and helped you tinker with time to find the movie’s rhythm in the editing room. Was he helping you achieve your original vision of the film or showing you something you didn’t realize it could do before?

He was working on the assembly while we were shooting, and he completely threw the script away and cut the footage together based on his own intuition. He was looking for hidden connections and narrative jumps, and all the things you would recognize in one of his films. That was wonderfully liberating for me because, at that point, I had the screenplay and felt it was pretty solid. But I felt pretty rigid about it. I felt it needed to follow certain rules, particularly in regards to time. At a certain point in the film, time as a narrative construct gets very flexible. I felt that, on a formal level, time needed to be incredibly rigid and well-defined so it wouldn’t muddy the waters of the narrative later on down the line.

What Shane did was help me rid myself of that rigidity, basically. Although he only worked on the movie for a few weeks, what he put together was vastly illuminating. He wasn’t so much finding the rhythms I later employed so much as he was showing me that I did not need to follow my own rules so thoroughly. That the film could withstand a more flexible approach – and, indeed, benefit from it.

I’ve read some things where you talk about how your experiences with Catholicism and Buddhism might or might not have informed the film. But apart from religion, is there something spiritual about the land in Texas to you? Or something that transcends time?

I definitely feel that. I feel that about the houses I live in. There is a palpable sense of history in the homes that I choose to occupy. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitate towards old homes, I really like that sense of history and that sense that I am one step in a very long process that trails out in both directions around me. Before me and ahead of me.

Texas, in general, for me has such rich history and amazing history that it’s impossible to separate the state from its own legacy. I value that. I really enjoy that. The same is true for any part of the country, or any part of the world. But because I’ve been raised in Texas and steeped in Texas history, that particular tradition and that legacy is readily apparent to me everywhere I look. It is not necessarily the most savory history, in its current form. We’ll look back at what’s happening now in the state and hopefully recognize that this particular chapter in Texas history is not the best one.

Nonetheless, that history is rich and vivid and angry and beautiful and sad – and has a spirit to it that is undeniable. I think that is what appeals to me about Texas above all else. It has this almost unquantifiable spirit that is both political and personal. I think the best metaphor for it, on a visual level, is to point to the flag which is historically the only state flag that can be flown at the same level as the U.S. flag. In that rambunctious, upstart spirit, I find a great deal of personal satisfaction. I like that. I don’t like where it leads all the time, on a political and personal level, but I like what’s behind it. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitate not just to Texas history but to the state itself and why I want to reside there.

And what about music – that seems to be something that connects C and M across their different plains of existence?

I think music is just one of those things that can cut through whatever – you are catching me on a day when I have run out of all my vocabulary. Gosh, what word am I looking for?

I really find music combines things together in a way that nothing else can. It combines two people together with an expediency that no other form of communication can. It can cut through words and meaning and get directly to the heart of the matter. When I find myself in a narrative bind as a storyteller and screenwriter, I often use music as a way to get out of it. Music just solves problems. It can be a great equalizer and put all sorts of conflicts at rest – at least temporarily. In this film, the characters are having a dispute and reach an impasse. That impasse is ultimately resolved not through words or conversations but just through an exchange of music.

And that, in my life, has been a very meaningful experience which has proven to be true time and again. If there are no words in any given situation that can make a situation better or communicate an idea, music can often step in and provide that common ground for two people. And if you just want to boil it down just how it functions in a relationship, when two people get to know each other, the fastest way to understand the way in which a stranger feels or looks at the world or thinks about the world is to listen to their iTunes library to get a sense of their taste of music. You get to know someone so much more thoroughly when you’re getting to know them on a musical level. Once you build a relationship with someone, whether it’s a friend or a coworker or a collaborator or a spouse, the way in which music intertwines in your mutual lives is usually one of the most defining aspects of that relationship. At least that’s what I’ve found.

So I wanted that to be common ground in which the two characters come together in an important moment in their lives.

I seem to recall you hitting back at some of the lazy characterizations of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as Malick-inspired, but those light refractions inside the house did remind me some of the flickering flame in The Tree of Life – so I have to ask, was this project influenced by Malick at all?

Definitely. There’s no way for me not to be influenced by Malick just because I have definitely found a great deal of value in what he is contributing to cinema, on a formal level and the cinematic grammar that he employs. And the idealistic one, because I do like what he is after – particularly in The Tree of Life, he is seeking after something that can’t be contained in mere narrative.

So I definitely will cop to being influenced by him, there’s no doubt about it. In this movie, there is that flickering little ghost light on the wall that does exist in The Tree of Life. I can’t say that that wasn’t an influence but that also in my friend John’s [movie title – unintelligible] and that was probably a bigger influence. I saw his movie and was like, “Huh, I might borrow that some day.” And I did. It wasn’t until later where I was like, we probably both got that from The Tree of Life.

I don’t bristle at being compared to Malick because I like the same things he likes and respond to the same things he responds to.  I think – I’ve never met him – but I can tell in what he does that I want to do similar things. But I don’t want to limit myself to that. There’s truth in every single comparison but I also feel there’s a lot more going on under that. Hopefully, in particular with A Ghost Story, it manages to break free of those comparisons. Although I’m totally fine if they’re made.





LISTFUL THINKING: The Most Anticipated Films of 2017

1 01 2017

No more ink need be spilled on the collective dumpster fire that was 2016. There were plenty of good movies to be found, but the anticipation factor felt relatively lacking as the year went on. That is likely to change in 2017 given the amount of projects coming from some of cinema’s most talented artists. We’re at the right time in the cycle of production for a serendipitously large amount of directors, and thank goodness for that.

I usually do a few honorable mentions just given the likelihood of many of these films not theatrically releasing in the current calendar year. So here are a few: “Okja,” Bong Joon-Ho’s follow-up to “Snowpiercer,” has Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal in wacky costumes, so I’m in. After “Sicario,” I am very much down for Denis Villeneuve to do anything, including “Blade Runner 2049.” Edgar Wright is such a bonkers and brilliant stylist that “Baby Driver” is sure to get me excited. Sequels to “Star Wars” (especially after Carrie Fisher’s passing), “Planet of the Apes,” “Prometheus” (known as “Alien: Covenant”) and “10 Cloverfield Lane” (still untitled) will pack me in.

But now, on with the top 10! (NOTE: I’m tired on New Year’s Day and will add in more underneath each title on the morning of the 2nd. Sorry, folks, only human.)

Michael Haneke Happy End

#10
“Happy End” (TBD)
Written and directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean-Louis Trintignant

Michael Haneke’s cinema of cruelty feels like the kind of thing we deserve in 2017 – especially in regards to the migrant crisis in Europe, the backdrop of this film.

Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern in Wilson

#9
“Wilson” (March 24)
Directed by Craig Johnson
Written by Daniel Clowes
Starring Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern and Judy Greer

Somewhat showing my bias here since the director, Craig Johnson, is someone I know – but darn if this movie doesn’t look hilarious and awesome.

Downsizing

#8
“Downsizing” (December 22)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig and Christoph Waltz

Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of “Nebraska,” I will always be excited for a new Alexander Payne movie. The fact that his latest is a high-concept satire only has me more intrigued.

Molly's Game

#7
“Molly’s Game” (TBD)
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. Incredible cast. Need I say more?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

#6
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (TBD)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Alicia Silverstone

More English-language fun with the director of “The Lobster” is very much what the doctor ordered. Hopefully this is a surreal movie perfectly timed for our surreal times.

untitled-darren-aronofsky-project

#5
“Mother” (TBD)
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Domnhall Gleeson and Javier Bardem

I am glad Darren Aronofsky got “Noah” out of his system so now he can return to thrillers like “Black Swan.” Hopefully Jennifer Lawrence’s supposed romance/showmance with him does not cast a cloud over the film.

Paul Thomas Anderson Daniel Day-Lewis

#4
Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson/Daniel Day-Lewis Fashion Project (TBD)
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis

There is literally no other information about this film other than the fact that PTA is writing/directing it, DDL is starring and it somehow involves fashion. That’s all I need.

Tully Jason Reitman

#3
“Tully” (TBD)
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis and Mark Duplass

The dream team of Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron is reuniting. Prepare for my pieces claiming that “Young Adult” is a forgotten gem of the decade.

kathryn-bigelow-detroit

#2
Untitled Katherine Bigelow Detroit Project (TBD)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Starring John Krasinski, John Boyega and Anthony Mackie

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have made two great movies about recent history and the American character, so I’m very curious to see what they’ll find when they venture back a half-century to Detroit’s race riots. They’ve assembled an all-star cast to help them, too.

Dunkirk

#1
“Dunkirk” (July 21)
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance

Chris Ryan at The Ringer said it best: “I Hope ‘Dunkirk’ Is Four Years Long.” Bring it on, Christopher Nolan. I am ready for your war movie. Reach into my chest, pull out my heart, and make it beat at your desired frequency.





In A World… (The Top 10 Films of 2016)

31 12 2016

“In a world…”

Any self-respecting ’90s moviegoer can never forget announcer Don LaFontaine’s literally trademarked invocation. It was an invitation to enter a world apart from our own, be it an entirely invented fantasy realm, a different country or a fresh perspective.

I bring this up in regards to a year end list of 2016 because so many things I could say to describe the events of this year feel so unfathomable that they could only follow “In a world…” Both personally and culturally, the past 12 months have upended plans, expectations and assumptions. It’s not just the result of the 2016 election in America, or the outcome of the Brexit referendum, or whatever the hell happened when Batman battled Superman – and on the positive side, it’s not just the fact that I covered Sundance, tackled SXSW, and interviewed some really talented cinematic artists. It’s everything that led up to that, all the many breaks that went the way they did to get us to this point.

I always do my best to rewatch any movie I put on my year’s best, but this year I found that I had to rewatch more 2016 films not to determine whether they were as good as I had originally thought. Rather, I had to reexamine what I thought they were about at their core. I could go on and on, but for some examples: “Christine” played like a personal psychodrama at Sundance and an elegy for the dignity of television journalism in December. “Jackie” felt like an empowering tale of a former First Lady gaining her agency at the New York Film Festival in October, yet it seemed more like a requiem mass for a fallen dynasty in late November.

Melissa McCarthy as Michelle Darnell in The Boss

Films whose attitudes I had dismissed – “Deadpool,” “The Boss,” “War Dogs” – seemed validated. Others that seemed to champion the virtues of our era – “Denial,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Neighbors 2” – felt somewhat hollow, if not completely naive.

I remain uncertain as to which of these films is weaker or stronger for accommodating such a panoply of vantage points. In a world where nothing seems certain, it was a valuable and instructive experience for me to remember that while a film as an object stays the same, our ideas and understandings about are invariably shaped by the worldview from which we approach them. The conditions of its creation are unchangeable. The context of our reception is always subject to forces beyond our control.

So … in a world where seemingly so much is at stake and so little is known, what place do movies have? And what importance does writing about them take? When I started paring down the 200 theatrical releases from 2016 that I viewed this year (fun fact: that’s exactly the same amount as 2015), I was struck by how many of them had created an irresistible world or replicated our present one with a staggering amount of accuracy and honesty. I realized that for so much of the year, the best cinema was not an escape from the world but a means for better understanding it in this crazy year.

Without further ado, here are my selections for the top 10 films of 2016. Rather than lavish them with superlatives, I simply hope to convey what I found of value in those worlds. (If you want all the praise, look to my reviews – the titles hyperlink to them.) Now, on with the show: in a world…

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INTERVIEW: Paolo Sorrentino, writer/director of “Youth”

4 09 2016

In the social sciences, published literature carries a bias of statistical significance. If a journal accepts a given study or finding, it rises to the level of carrying less than a 5% likelihood of occurring due to chance. What that leaves out of the record is what doesn’t work – an equally valuable set of knowledge for anyone looking to do similar research.

What does any of this have to do with my interview of Paolo Sorrentino, writer/director of last year’s “Youth” and Academy Award winner for “The Great Beauty.” Well, aside from some notable cringe-worthy interviews that can play for laughs, we seldom see interviews with talent that don’t go well. As much as I’d like to say everyone can form rapport with their subject in an exchange, it doesn’t always happen.

And let’s just say my talk with Sorrentino wasn’t pretty. It’s been almost 10 months since I recorded this 10 minute phone interview, and I’ve been too scared to listen to it again. I don’t know what all went wrong. I was the last interview of the day, so was he tired from a long day of talking? We had to speak through an translator, so did something get lost in Italian? Could he tell that I just didn’t feel passionately about his movie?

Whatever it was, I feel compelled to revisit my pain on the occasion of Sorrentino’s mini-series “The Young Pope” premiering at the Venice Film Festival. Perhaps it will provide someone with the tools to avoid a similarly awkward interview. The talk definitely taught me to be careful about assuming autobiographical links, even when a film like “Youth” featuring an aging director makes the temptation too irresistible. Here we go…

Paolo Sorrentino directing Youth

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INTERVIEW: Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America”

21 08 2016

In case you haven’t noticed from talented actors committing major blunders or fouls in an interview, the press process is long and grueling. I’ve sat at many a roundtable where journalists ask the most basic questions that were probably answered in the press kit (that the same interviewer probably chose not to read). In many ways, I almost cannot even blame talented filmmakers for getting frustrated right off the bat when beginning an interview.

That’s not what happened when I sat down with Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America” – in case you thought that’s where my lede was heading. Quite the contrary, actually. He had a level of respect for my questions due in large part to the fact that he himself spent many years doing writing about film himself on the site In Contention. Hartigan was also just three hours removed from the rapturous premiere of his latest film in front of the largest auditorium at the Sundance Film Festival, which didn’t hurt either.

But search “In Contention” here on my site, and you’ll see just how formative that site was for my opinions and writing style in the early days of Marshall and the Movies. Hartigan served as their box office writer, a hat he wore on the side while pursuing filmmaking. We got to talking about both sides of his persona and how they didn’t really collide in “Morris from America,” a sincere and hilarious coming-of-age comedy about a black teenager (Markees Christmas’ Morris) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson’s Curtis) trying to acculturate in a small German town.

Chad Hartigan Sundance Award

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INTERVIEW: Actors Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman and Blake Jenner of “Everybody Wants Some!!”

22 04 2016

I should have known to just throw out all my pre-prepared questions when I walked into the interview suite to the sight of Everybody Wants Some stars Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman and Blake Jenner in a full-on body pile on top of the film’s executive producer, Steven Feder. The ten minutes with the actors that followed were among the wackiest, zaniest and most unpredictable I ever expect to have with talent – and I loved every moment of it.

Not that I ever doubted the authenticity of the team-building fostered by director Richard Linklater, but it was abundantly clear after this interview that there was no fakery up on screen. They banter about like siblings but with little of the rivalry and power jostling that normally comes about in such a relationship. As I quickly learned, Jenner’s status playing the film’s protagonist, freshman pitcher Jake Bradford, made him no more or less valuable than older or more experienced actors like Hoechlin and Guzman, who respectively play senior hotshots McReynolds and Roper.

Chalk it up to me being the last person at the end of the press day, or perhaps because my standing as a 23-year-old guy just out of college himself made me a closer demographic match to a peer than most journalists grilling them, but the traditional model of interviewer/subject transaction seemed to fly out the window. I did my research prior to our sit-down yet never found any examples of the guys seemingly so loose and unfiltered. The conversation started off about Texas (since we were in Houston, Linklater’s birthplace) and wound up in tangents of good-natured barbs, obscure pop culture references and the occasional song lyric. So just like any other gathering of multiple twenty-something dudes, in other words.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 2.34.26 PM

I’m sure you’ve heard this all along the press tour, but Everybody Wants Some really could be anyone’s college experience anywhere. But as a native Texan, it struck me as being very specific and accurate about this state. When you all were developing the characters and the atmosphere with Richard Linklater, did he want them to be true to Texas?

TYLER HOECHLIN

I don’t remember that being a thing because I don’t know if I even thought about that. I thought of my guy being an out-of-state guy, to be honest.

RYAN GUZMAN

I thought of my guy being a Texas guy.

TYLER HOECHLIN

But it never weighed on the film. We never talked about, “This guy’s from this part of Texas.” Maybe he did with certain guys in particular.

RYAN GUZMAN

Like Bueter [the nickname for Will Brittain’s character, Billy Autrey], for instance. He might have talked to him about that.

TYLER HOECHLIN

But it wasn’t something where we all sat down individually and said, “This part of Texas is you.”

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RYAN GUZMAN

But we love Texas.

BLAKE JENNER [after a beat]

Texas Am I.

[Hoechlin and Guzman erupt in laughter]

TYLER HOECHLIN

What was that?

BLAKE JENNER

I am Texas, Texas am I.  You’ve never heard that saying?

TYLER HOECHLIN

No, not at all.

BLAKE JENNER

I guess I’m just spiritually older than you guys.

[Interviewer’s note: I’ve never heard this phrase in over two decades living in the state of Texas. The Internet was not helpful, either. Sorry, Blake.]

What did you take away about Texas, either from playing your character or just from shooting the movie here?

RYAN GUZMAN (with a put-on drawl)

Y’all got some pretty ladies out here. I do like it.

BLAKE JENNER

You guys have some great, great Mexican food. I’d never had breakfast tacos before. I got to go to ACL and see Eminem, which was really cool. I really enjoyed that experience.

RYAN GUZMAN (overlapping)

Really good music out here.

BLAKE JENNER

I was living on Elizabeth and South Congress, which was a nice spot to check out some art shops and bookshops. I just like the culture you got out here.

RYAN GUZMAN

Hell yeah.

TYLER HOECHLIN

I really like the feeling of originality in Austin that’s really just kind of its own thing. The music scene, the art scene – it is its own special place.

RYAN GUZMAN

I had planned to go back to where I was actually born, but it was like six hours away from Austin.

BLAKE JENNER

ROAD TRIP!!!

That’s the thing people don’t realize about Texas – other people say “the next town over” and for us, that’s six hours away.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah.

BLAKE JENNER

Oh, and the barbecue. I went to Salt Lick, and it’s the most incredible barbecue I’ve ever had in my life.

I know the working title for the movie was That’s What I’m Talking About, which I didn’t think much of until I saw the movie again and noticed how many times you all said the phrase. Literally, I think every character had at least one moment where they said it. If you’re allowed, can you elaborate a little on what “that’s what I’m talking about” means to the movie?

TYLER HOECHLIN (looking over to studio personnel)

Are we allowed to talk about that?

BLAKE JENNER

Now that it’s not the title, it’s just slang. It’s common language between them.

RYAN GUZMAN

I think it started becoming ingrained in us. Like we would just spout off, “that’s what I’m talking about,” without even realizing we were saying the title.

TYLER HOECHLIN

I don’t know what more we’re allowed to say.

BLAKE JENNER (curling up, in a soft voice that slowly takes on a German accent)

They beat us. They beat us. They beat us. We don’t talk about it.

TYLER HOECHLIN (as Guzman joins in on the “They beat us”)

You can ask the next one, they’ll just keep going.

[Interviewer’s note: A source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, later added: “It was a VERY popular phrase, but it was also used in Dazed and Confused. It was a phrase one of the characters in Dazed and Confused used a lot. So there was a tie-in to that. But part of it was like, oh, they say it so much that to name the movie after it would be a cliché. Rick liked the idea of a song, like Dazed, as the title.”]

Everybody-Wants-Some-1-1024x651

Watching the film again last night, I was struck by how much more endearing these guys in 1980 are than your average 2016 bro, even though the characters in the movie are probably a little bit more crude and open about how they feel about women. Have you brought anything back from the period to be a little more … chivalrous? [Interviewer’s note: was reaching for a different adjective and the wrong one came out – was aiming for something more in the ballpark of genial or sociable.]

TYLER HOECHLIN

Chivalrous? From these guys?

RYAN GUZMAN

I have never actually thought of those two things together, chivalry and this movie.

TYLER HOECHLIN

No, I can’t say I took anything from McReynolds on chivalry.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, definitely not Roper for sure.

BLAKE JENNER

Maybe just like a little piece of knowledge we took back from into present day?

RYAN GUZMAN

Well, you know what, living in the moment. I think we can all agree on that…

BLAKE JENNER

Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. I just didn’t want to be the first one to say it.

Living in the moment for sure. Everything was so disconnected in the best way back then. You were with your boys, and those were the only people you were with. There were no cell phones, no Facebook, no Twitter, so this movie is a cool message to live in the now.

RYAN GUZMAN

You actually had a reason when you were together to talk about your lives rather than just tweet about everything or Snapchat everything.

BLAKE JENNER

That’s all we do now, we talk about SisQó.

RYAN GUZMAN

Where did he go?

BLAKE JENNER

Where did SisQó go?

RYAN GUZMAN

Look up his Snapchat.

BLAKE JENNER [singing lyrics fromSisQó’s “The Thong Song”]

I like it when the beat goes / baby make your booty go!

Everybody-Wants-Some-Blake-Jenner

Blake, that final creeping grin on Jake’s face in the film reminded me so much of the face Mason makes in the last shot of Boyhood.

BLAKE JENNER

The birth of a psychopath…

Was that coincidence or was it written into the script?

BLAKE JENNER

No, that was actually written into the script! I just didn’t want to make it a gimmicky kind of thing or, like, “This is the checkpoint at the end of the movie!” It feels pretty natural the way we shot it, me, Temple [Baker, who plays fellow freshman teammate Tyrone Plummer] and Rick that day. But yeah, that was part of it the whole time.

The movie is so much about living in the moment and embracing the joy of the present, but were you ever thinking about what happens to your characters after the movie ends? Like, is McReynolds going pro, is Jake planning to hone in on a single girl and a single identity?

TYLER HOECHLIN

We’ve thought about it recently because we’re trying to figure out how to convince Rick to do a sequel.

BLAKE JENNER

Or a mini-series. Any series.

RYAN GUZMAN

At the time, we were talking about this whole “Mac & Cheese” thing (an affectionate power couple name for the bromance between the two characters played by Hoechlin and Guzman) for a little bit.

TYLER HOECHLIN

We decided, as character research, we were just actually going to move in together. So Ryan and I actually live together now. So, yeah, we’re researching for “The Mac & Cheese Show.”

RYAN GUZMAN

He says “living together,” but he just orders me around. And I just clean the house.

TYLER HOECHLIN

It’s not my fault you let it happen.

BLAKE JENNER

You’re like the robot maid in the Jetsons.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, I don’t know why I wear a bustier.

BLAKE JENNER

What’s her name, Rosie? Is that the maid?

TYLER HOECHLIN

You’re Rosie Jetson.

RYAN GUZMAN

I’m Rosie Jetson. Cool. That’s what I planned to be when I came out to L.A. [in a soft, hokey aspirational voice] “What do you want to be? I want to be a Rosie Jetson! A star.”

everybody-wants-some-trailer

Whatever it takes to make the dream work!

RYAN GUZMAN

I’ve heard worse.

BLAKE JENNER

With Jake, I think he’d get to know Beverly a little more and maybe make his mark over the next couple of years on the team. Do his best to become a leader like McReynolds and Finn and all those guys.

RYAN GUZMAN (put out)

And Roper, I guess.

BLAKE JENNER

No, Roper is going to jail. Roper is being imprisoned.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, me and Jay Niles and Coma. All for different reasons.

BLAKE JENNER

Coma for public intoxication.

RYAN GUZMAN

Mine’s for a prostitution ring.

BLAKE JENNER

And Jay Niles flipped out at a mall. He was working at a kiosk. “TOO PHILOSOPHICAL FOR THIS KIOSK, MAN!”

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I’ve heard you all talk a little bit about the casting process and how you each auditioned for multiple parts, and I think it’s interesting the way the cast came together with some of the older, more experienced guys getting the upperclassmen parts and the younger guys along with the fresher faces playing the freshmen. Beyond how it provides some degree of realism on screen, do you think that the characters’ place mirroring the actors’ place helped the bonding process off screen, too?

TYLER HOECHLIN

I don’t think anybody’s history ever came in.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, it was more so just getting together and figuring out how to work this thing out. From day one, we all turned into brothers. There were certain things like, “How was Jennifer Lopez’s butt?” That was one of the first questions. But nothing from our history came into play.

TYLER HOECHLIN

I remember walking into the production office, and I had no idea who had been cast yet. I saw, I think it was Juston [Street] and Austin [Amelio] were there, maybe one or two other people. They didn’t say we were going to meet the cast; they didn’t say anything. So I showed up and met them, and it took me a minute to go, “Oh, ok, I had no idea you were too!” We just got to know each other from a base normal level and just became a team.

RYAN GUZMAN

It was instant love the first second I saw Blake Jenner…

Blake Jenner (singing the song by Gary Weaver)

Dreaaaaaaam weaver!

RYAN GUZMAN

…since that first question.

BLAKE JENNER

What was the first question?

RYAN GUZMAN

I can’t say it.

BLAKE JENNER

You can’t say it? Oh, the length. Yeah.

RYAN GUZMAN

We both equaled out to two inches.

[Entire room bursts into laughter]

TYLER HOECHLIN

On that note…

On that note, don’t just sit here and laugh. Go see “Everybody Wants Some!!” It’s now playing just about everywhere. 





Dr. Strangelove and American Fascism

6 03 2016

In recent months, I have grappled frequently with the idea that a form of fascism may be rising in America. Recent events have surprised me, as they have shocked others. But the other day, I remembered a paper I wrote nearly 5 years ago in a Cold War literature class, and it reminded me that I should not be surprised at all. Stanley Kubrick gave us a pretty great idea of how America would fall prey to fascist ideals, albeit in a more existential and oblique way. Here’s the text of that essay, unaltered from its original submission in November 2011.

During the Cold War, America was ostensibly fighting the Soviet Union. However, in his 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick makes the case that while locked in this battle, the country was still plagued by the remnants of fascism lingering from World War II. Through the proceedings of the United States government with former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove in the War Room, Kubrick shows that in the efforts of President Merkin Muffley and his advisors to prevent a state-executed nuclear holocaust, the country falls prey to fascist ideals.

America was so committed to destroying fascism in World War II that they were even willing to ally with the Soviet Union, a nation with a conflicting political ideology. At the war’s outset, both countries feared the rapid expansionist policies of Hitler. But as the clash continued, they also grew to fear the Nazi’s dehumanizing and barbaric applications of technology to commit genocide sanctioned by the highest-ranking officials of the party, including Hitler himself. The two countries ultimately forced Nazi capitulation and dismantled the fascist government, writing the history of the war as if bringing Hitler to his demise was tantamount to destroying the most perniciously evil being on the planet.

President Muffley fears even being mentioned in the same sentence as the Fuhrer, judging his own decisions against the notorious legacy: “I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.” With the development of the atomic bomb – a testament to human scientific progress yet also a means to achieve ends of Nazi proportions – world superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States began to stock up on nuclear weapons to keep the world from destroying itself. To maintain this fragile peace, they kept the world in a climate of fear as an apocalyptic meltdown loomed.

History defines the Cold War in terms like deterrence and mutually assured destruction; Kubrick, however, has a different vocabulary for the contentions between America and Russia. Through satire, he breaks down what he perceives to be the ridiculousness of such strategies to a juvenile game of comparing penis size. The drive for war is tied into the male sex drive through consistent use of phallic imagery, ranging from cigars and missiles to a fuel nozzle. Many of the characters carry sexually connotative names, including references to male studs (General Buck Turgidson), perversity (Dr. Strangelove), and aphrodisiacs (Captain Mandrake).

One character that does not fit the mold is President Merkin Muffley, whose first and last names are slang references to the female pubic region. The contrast between he and the generals is further drawn by exaggerated physical differences. While Turgidson and the other men in the War Room are big, bulky men with deep voices, Muffley is balding, timid, and nebbish and talks in higher, nasal tones. Such a characterization of the most powerful man in the country hardly conjures an image comparable to the fiery, militaristic Adolf Hitler.

At the beginning of the film, Muffley appears immune to many of the ideas of the other generals in the War Room. He can reason conscientiously in the presence of these men, taking into account the lessons of history before hastily jumping to a decision. Muffley is able to make clear distinctions even when pressured by grandiosely worded arguments:

TURGIDSON. Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.
MUFFLEY. You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

Turgidson’s rhetoric employs an appeal to pathos, a ploy that Muffley can reject because it requires him to personally make the choice to kill millions of people. He equates such a deliberate decision with Hitler’s calculated extermination of those he considered less superior. Muffley also fears another parallel between himself and Hitler because the Nazi dictator also claimed justification for slaughter by saying it served his country’s best interests.

Dr. Strangelove (2)

However, Dr. Strangelove exposes that the President’s fear may only be of the image associated with fascism. The femininity implied by Muffley’s appearance and name suggest that he is more prone to be swayed by logical and intellectual arguments than the testosterone-fueled generals. With the world in peril, Muffley turns specifically to Strangelove for advice on how to proceed in the face of – and later, the aftermath of – the triggering of the Doomsday Machine.

Strangelove, the director of weapons research and development for the United States, is a brilliant ex-Nazi scientist bound to a wheelchair. Dr. Strangelove champions the computerization of the Doomsday Machine, claiming that it becomes all the more effective because it lacks the human element to make the decision to stop it: “Because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying.”

Muffley initially fears the machine when informed of its existence, but once told that he would not have to be implicated in triggering it, he calls it “fantastic.” Unlike when talking with Turgidson, he is now comfortable with the idea of causing the death of millions only because the killing will be impersonal. While this development might disassociate him with the face of Nazi Germany, Muffley appears to have failed to realize that, ironically, he is advocating the use of technology to achieve similar outcomes.

The ease of lapsing into fascism is most evident in the final scene. After the bomb Major Kong rides into the ground detonates, the world is in ruins and on the brink of apocalypse. With a nuclear holocaust on the horizon, Dr. Strangelove begins to propose mineshaft survival measures that sound eerily reminiscent to Nazi programs like the Final Solution and eugenics. He encounters slight opposition from Muffley though:

MUFFLEY. I would hate to have to decide who stays up and who goes down.
STRANGELOVE. That would not be necessary, Mr. President. A computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills.

Muffley gives a tacit approval to Strangelove’s ideas by not really questioning their validity. Much like with the Doomsday Machine, Dr. Strangelove is able to allay the President’s fears by adding in the allure of technology, thus removing a sense of personal responsibility from whatever occurs. At the same time, Strangelove is enabling Muffley to commit a much more systematic extermination than the Nazis could have ever carried out because of the advanced technological capabilities of the United States without having to outwardly look as treacherous as Hitler.

Kubrick juxtaposes Muffley’s regression to fascist ideals with Dr. Strangelove’s bodily relapse back into its old Nazi habits. When asked by President Muffley if it would truly be possible for humans to survive in the mineshafts for 100 years, Strangelove’s voice gets higher and faster in excitement; he also refers to the President as “Mein Fuhrer,” a slip he quickly corrects. Soon after, his right hand begins acting up, seig-heiling Muffley against his will after exalting the values of the military.

After he furiously beats it into submission, his wayward right hand curls up under his chin in the pose of the famous statue “The Thinker” and then proceeds to choke him. This image harkens back to one of Kubrick’s central messages: anyone, even a genius that can ponder the deepest questions of humanity and existence, can be strangled by the impulses of their right side. Here, the right side is literally Strangelove’s spastic hand, but figuratively, it is the ultra-right leanings of fascism.

Even as Dr. Strangelove begins to outwardly show his fascist tendencies, Muffley and General Turgidson do not question his political motivations. In fact, they even seem to contemplate it further. While Muffley sits in pensive silence, Turgidson begins to apply his American sexually driven jingoism to Strangelove’s Nazi ideas:

TURGIDSON. We must be increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!

Turgidson’s comment demonstrates that Strangelove’s intellectual fascism has quickly become intertwined with the American ideology. Immediately following this outburst, Dr. Strangelove gets up out his wheelchair and begins to walk, declaring: “I have a plan … Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” His rise from the wheelchair and subsequent unapologetic reference to Muffley as his Fuhrer echoes what Kubrick views as a nascent American fascism coming to full bloom.

Dr. Strangelove

Strangelove, like the political ideology he supports, was not exterminated by World War II but only confined to a wheelchair and imported to the United States in a weakened form. Dr. Strangelove and fascism both lurk in the secret depths of the American government, waiting to attach itself to the masculine-fueled drive for war and experience a revival. In a film replete with irony, perhaps the cruelest and hardest to face is Kubrick’s prediction that the United States will one day come to resemble the very thing it fought to eradicate.

Despite being satirical in tone, Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” offers many criticisms of American culture not confined to just the Cold War epoch. During a time when an insidious enemy threatens to destroy the fabric of society itself, it becomes all too easy to look to the horizon and let the foundations of America rot. If policing communism – or any other threat – means a regression into fascist ideals, the United States may not be a savior but rather a danger to the world and to itself. In their strenuous effort not to look bad, Kubrick suggests that America may have forgotten to actually be good.

If the country cannot change its ways, perhaps the United States is headed down a path similar to the one tread by the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I government. In a volatile world shaken up by global conflict, it easily fell victim to forces that would commit monstrous atrocities.





INTERVIEW: Ramin Bahrani, co-writer and director of “99 Homes”

9 02 2016

Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has swooped into the public imagination and awards conversation, completely changing the way we think about how movies can portray the Great Recession. Perhaps that film signals a new era of storytelling about this fraught period in American culture. The 2007-2008 financial crisis now makes for period pieces, not current events.

A cinematic history that began with “Up in the Air” gets a bookend in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film that made an immediate impact on me at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and landed at #4 on my top films of 2015. I have called it a “gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism” as well as an illumination of “the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Bahrani, the film’s co-writer and director, about just how he used a hardened real estate agent, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, and a desperate evictee, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, to show the systems responsible for American middle-class misery. Our conversation clarified how “99 Homes” fits in with many years of films about the recession – but also how it stands apart and alone.

Ramin Bahrani and Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

I see Up in the Air as the first film to really talk about [the recession on screen].  I do think one thing that really sets 99 Homes apart for me is that Up in the Air uses the recession as the setting and not the subject.

Right.

At the end of the day, it’s really a movie about George Clooney’s character finding human connection.  Whereas 99 Homes made the downturn both the setting and the subject.  Was that something you felt was necessary to align?

For me, it was like why go into the situation and bring a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.  Why I referenced Up in the Air is that it surprised people – they thought it was going to be one thing in terms of tone.  And that’s what true here, people think it’s going to be a foreclosure film with a sad story.  But the tone is so different from what people expected.

You’re correct to isolate a major difference because my movie is actually about the foreclosure crisis and what it meant to people as opposed to just making a romantic comedy in a situation that has to do with that.  The story kind of originated from what was happening on the ground there, the entire plot came out of the corruptions that I saw in the housing industry and the foreclosure industry.

Jason Reitman talked a lot about how when he was surveying the people who lost their jobs, it shifted the tone.  It was originally a corporate satire and eventually became more of a heartfelt drama.  Of course, he even used some of those people who had been laid off and gave them a chance to act out their experiences. 

I know that you did a lot of research and went down to Florida to survey the situation for yourself.  Did that change the film in your head when you got on the ground?

I didn’t go down there with the script; I went down there to find the story. I try to stay open to the location and the people I meet to let that inform the story. I was surprised by what I saw. I had no idea real estate brokers carried guns. I had no idea there was so much violence, so many scams. It never occurred to me that there were scams like that on the ground. So that started to inform the script.

Of course, I’m using non-professional actors in the film, but I have a history of doing that. I make features where every single person is a non-professional actor; I made three films like that. So here, I weaved that into the story – we use a real sheriff who actually does evictions. When Andrew [Garfield, who plays protagonist Dennis Nash] knocks on doors, every other one is a real person. Every other one is an actor, but Andrew never knew who was who. He never knew what the people were going to say or do. I didn’t tell him what was going to happen, he just would knock on a door and then something would happen. He would have to deal with it.

99 HOMES

Are there any other post-recessional films that 99 Homes might have been in conversation with or in response to?  At Telluride, you said, “I wanted to make this film because no one else had made it.”  Anything you thought was particularly good (or, up to you, anything bad)? Was there anything 99 Homes needed to issue a corrective to?

I don’t want to say that because I think every filmmaker should make whatever film they want. I just knew this was a story that had never been told. I like stories that have never been told. I like in a world I’ve never been in – I have a history of that.

We know the Faustian story, that is archetypically true and we can connect to it. But we didn’t know the world of foreclosures. I didn’t know that world, and the audiences like going to worlds that they don’t know about.

In terms of films, I was very much looking at movies like The Hustler, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, All the President’s Men.

Is 99 Homes a continuation of At Any Price at all? I wouldn’t say they are siblings – maybe cousins?

Yeah, I think there’s a sense of that. I was conscious of it. I’m probably going to make the same film over and over and over again in a different setting. Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas, and Mean Streets are all still Who’s Knocking at My Door? [Martin Scorsese’s first film].

I’ve found that most movies that tackled economic concerns post-recession tended to focus on upper-middle class white professionals losing their security cushion, but 99 Homes actually shows the people losing their homes and moving into motels. This tone-deaf depiction does not seem to be the case in Europe – the same day I saw 99 Homes in Telluride, I saw the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, which does a similarly excellent job of distilling the political into the personal.

Why do you think 99 Homes feels like such a rarity in American cinema –  do you think it’s a supply or demand side problem that’s leading to the glut of these movies?  Is it too hard to get movies financed about working class Americans, or is the older, affluent arthouse crowd only interested in seeing movies about people like themselves?

I don’t know, maybe you know more about that. The movie was extremely easy to get financed. I presented the script and the actors to my financiers, and in 24 hours they all said yes because they are desperate for stories that are actually about something AND happen to be really thrilling. The script was a page-turner, and it was about something.

Actors are desperate to be in something that are about real characters and real moral crisis. Exciting stories where they can connect to other actors as human beings. Not as General Zod and Spider-Man. I can tell you, Michael and Andrew don’t want to do this General Zod, Spider-Man thing. They want to be real people in films. I think audiences want to see them.

I can’t tell you why filmmakers don’t make them. I don’t really know. Again, I just think filmmakers should make whatever film they want. I’m sure the thing – this movie is showing a system. The real villain is the system, not Michael. The film industry is also a system, where certain people claim things to be true. Like, “Audiences want such and so thing.” I don’t believe that. But I think some filmmakers feel like they have to write certain things.

But I don’t believe that either. I think artists and filmmakers should make what they want. They want to see stories about real human beings, and actors want to be in stories about real human beings. No one wants to act in front of a green screen. It’s boring as hell; I can tell you that.

Ramin Bahrani & Michael Shannon 99 Homes

A lot of these movies have also used a “bad apples” framework to depict corporate executives, which condemns individuals like Gordon Gekko but not necessarily the system of power that enables them.  But in 99 Homes, it’s not just Rick Carver we should hate – it’s the entire system, which he points out is completely rigged.  How important was it for you to have him shine a light on macro level corruption?

The real heavy in any situation is a system – it’s not just one person. There can only be so many Iagos. Otherwise, you’ve just been begotten by the system you live in.

It’s not like real estate brokers as children told their parents, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people.” Nobody had that dream. Nobody had the dream to be an executioner in a prison, but we live in a country that has capital punishment. We live in a country that is so rigged that these guys’ jobs became doing these foreclosures.

And if Shannon [who plays real estate agent Rick Carver] didn’t do it, somebody else would. And that would mean he’d be out of a job. Out of a job means no money. No money means no rent. No rent means he and his family move into a motel.

For me, the real villain is the system, and Michael is just a product of it. As they say in the nighttime scene on the dock, my favorite scene, Michael is talking about how he carries a gun even at 5 A.M. He’s looking over his shoulder all the time. Andrew says, “Is it worth it?” And Michael says, “As opposed to what?” And that’s the question of the film. As opposed to what? What else are you supposed to do?

You developed this movie, I presume, in 2012?                  

Yeah, I started working on the research in 2012 and 2013, then we shot in 2014.

You’re pushing it out to the majority of your audience in 2015.  Do you think all that time away from the film’s events has affected the way people respond to the film – I can certainly think of a very prominent real estate mogul who loves separating America into “winners” and “losers” and is keeps Rick Carver all too relevant?

Yeah, I know. In fact, Michael talks about Donald Trump in the film. He calls Andrew “Donald Trump” at one point in the film, and now a bunch of critics and audiences are saying, “My god, he sounds just like Donald Trump!” And it’s true, he talks about winners and losers.

We live in a country where, in elementary school, they plant the flagpole on the playground. At the top of the flag, it says SUCCESS. Winners. And from there on all the way to the bottom, it’s losers. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Characters like Trump, which I hope to God – Donald Trump, if you’re listening, WATCH THIS FILM! That kind of figure starts to get attention from people because they’re hungry. Because things aren’t working, and when things aren’t working, you start to fall into line with language like that. You start to look for people to blame. Extreme wealth inequality is only going to give rise to that kind of vitriolic language.

I hope everyone goes to see this movie, especially Donald Trump.

[chuckles] Put it down, he’ll go see it maybe!

Michael Shannon Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

“99 Homes” is now available to purchase and rent on home video.





LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2016

1 01 2016

Well, guess it’s time to cast my gaze towards the horizon and start looking forward to a new year of moviegoing! I’ve slowly gotten better at making these lists, with more and more movies making it on my year-end top 10 list. 2015 was a bit of an anomaly as so many films got pushed back to 2016 – four out of the ten I picked last year will hopefully see release in the next twelve months.

In that period, some of my enthusiasm has dampened for “Everybody Wants Some” (then titled “That’s What I’m Talking About”), “Knight of Cups” and “Midnight Special.” But one title remains, and absence makes the heart grow fonder.

This year’s slate of most anticipated films feels rather odd, as there’s very little I’m crazily expecting. With relatively few of my favorite directors and series churning out work in 2016, I’m left grabbing at straws. Nonetheless, here are ten films that I’m very ready to see!

American Honey

#10
“American Honey” (TBD)
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Arielle Holmes and Riley Keough

After “Fish Tank,” I’m on board to see whatever Andrea Arnold comes up with next. She’s one of the most vital voices working in film today, not only for females but also just in general. I really have no idea what the film is about, and I don’t want to know.

Brad Pitt:Marion Cotillard

#9
Untitled WWII Romantic Thriller (November 23)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Steven Knight
Starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard

This team speaks for itself. I could care less that the casting isn’t even complete.

Passengers

#8
“Passengers” (December 21)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Written by Jon Spaihts
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt and Michael Sheen

If there was no Jennifer Lawrence movie for me to look forward to, would the year be worth undergoing?

Fantastic Beasts

#7
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (November 18)
Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller and Katherine Waterston

Ready to geek out over “Harry Potter” again, and it hasn’t even been five years since the last one. No shame.

The Girl on the Train

#6
“The Girl on the Train” (October 7)
Directed by Tate Taylor
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett

Admittedly, I thought the hype on last summer’s big book was a bit overblown. But I’m still excited to see how this team translates the story into cinema; my imagination often wandered towards I might realize this thriller on the big screen. Can’t wait to compare my ideas with their visions.

Julieta

#5
“Julieta” (TBD)
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez

Even when playing in minor key, a new Almodóvar film is always interesting. Returning to his favored territory, stories about women, might provide his best since 2006’s “Volver.”

It's Only the End of the World

#4
“It’s Only the End of the World”
Written and directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, and Vincent Cassel

I am SO ready to see Xavier Dolan, the exciting emerging talent of the decade, tackle his first movie with global stars. That one such star is Marion Cotillard only amplifies my excitement.

Hail Ceasar

#3
“Hail, Caesar!” (February 5)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum

I’m ready for any new Coen Brothers movie, but this one sounds like something special. “It’s about the movie business and life and religion and faith. Faith and the movie business,” Ethan said. Sounds like everything I could ever want from a movie and more.

La La Land

#2
“La La Land” (July 15)
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Finn Wittrock

Chazelle’s follow-up to “Whiplash” was going to be exciting enough. He sweetened the deal by making it a musical that reunites the magnetic on-screen duo of Gosling and Stone.

Silence

#1
“Silence” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks
Starring Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver

Last year’s #2, this year’s #1. I truly cannot wait to see the film that might be Scorsese’s ultimate statement on the religious themes that have pervaded his work for decades.





LISTFUL THINKING: Top 10 of 2015 (Individuals and Institutions)

31 12 2015

The end of the year has arrived once again in its typical fashion – surprising, jarring yet oddly welcome. On this occasion, per usual, it is time to celebrate 2015 in cinema. Thanks to a number of festivals as well as generous assistance from studio and regional publicists, I was able to see more movies than ever before. This year, the tally of 2015 releases alone soared to over 200. (I came so close to reviewing them all … but would rather provide well-considered commentary instead of rushing to meet an arbitrarily imposed deadline.)

When I sat down to pen my first top 10 list back in 2009, I doubt I had even seen 100 films, so the list represented roughly the top 10% of my year. With 2015’s edition showcasing less than 5%, I feel obliged to at least mention 10 other films that left an indelible mark on me this year but, for whatever reason, fell outside the upper echelon. These, too, are worthy of your time and attention. In alphabetical order, they are:

But the ten films that stood out above the rest this year all had one thing in common: they looked beyond their characters and plots towards larger, more difficult concepts to capture. Each in their own way spotlighted (pun fully intended) an institution or a system that guides, influences and even inhibits the actions that take place. I make no secret that my two fields of study in college were film studies and sociology, and to have such an exciting slate of movies that evinces how the former can shed light on the latter was a source of great joy (again, pun fully intended) throughout 2015.

Remarkably, each work never lost sight of the individual personalities that power our emotional engagement. The human element never detracts from the issues at hand, instead providing an entry point to ponder impersonal or intangible forces. In an era where television provides a depth of coverage that has become tough to rival, these films found power in a concentrated bursts of content where every second was carefully and wonderfully calibrated.

So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite films of 2015 along with the individuals and institutions featured within them.

Read the rest of this entry »





INTERVIEW: Josh Mond, writer/director of “James White”

9 12 2015

Back at it again! I had the really awesome chance to interview Josh Mond, the writer/director of “James White,” and the big conversation is over at Movie Mezzanine. But not all our talk made the final published interview, so for those that are curious, I’ve included two more questions here that Mond answered.

But what neither this post nor the full interview includes are the periods before and after our “official” conversation, so to speak. Right when I got on the phone with Mond, he said had just finished watching the Kurt Cobain documentary Soaked in Bleach before our phone call. (Apparently, someone around his office had told him, “I don’t know why you just watched that before doing an interview,” just prior.) We talked about documentaries for a little while before I got the official questioning underway, and then returned to it afterwards.

Unlike many interview subjects, rushing out after the final question to get to their next stop on the media tour, Mond stayed on the line for a full ten minutes to keep chatting about movies. Like any other cinephile, he is rapidly trying to work through the best films from 2015 during the year-end rush. Mond’s favorite to date is “Inside Out,” though he is still filling some gaps in his viewing. (We also discussed “Amy” and “Cartel Land” among others  – I put in a good word for “Mistress America.”)

But anyways, on to an excerpt from our conversation. This came from the tail end when he got reflective on the process of releasing the film.

Josh Mond directing James White

MOVIE MEZZANINE

You’re now at the tail end taking James White around the world. Has there been anything surprising to you about the journey of putting this personal story out there for audiences to interact with?

JOSH MOND

No matter the difference in cultures and how people have been responding around the world – in America after Sundance it was super vocal and great, other countries intellectualized – there’s always been one person at the very least who shares their story with me about what they’re going through or what they’ve been through [at the Q&A or after].

It’s continuing a dialogue, and the fact that it’s connecting so much that people feel okay doing that is … you know, I made this movie to connect. It’s a very hard thing to talk about, and it’s been awesome in that way to have a real connection with human beings all around the world.

MOVIE MEZZANINE

Is it going to be weird to move onto another project and have James White on the backburner?

JOSH MOND

It’s going to be extremely weird, but what’s really cool I learned – well, I’m still learning – a lot about what it is that I like. What makes me feel connected in what I want to say or be involved in.

I’m very lucky, though, because the day after one of the last things I had to do for James it was announced that Antonio’s new film [Christine] and then this other film we mentored and executive produced [Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother] both got into Sundance. It’s cool, though, like there’s more of us, we’re a family, and we’ve got other projects going on – I have other things to put my energy and the things I’ve learned into.

But the short answer is yes, it’s a little weird.

Christopher Abbott as James White