Twenty First Century Films

popcorn

Movies aren’t what they used to be.

This is the GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION!

Movies suck.

What did you binge watch lately?

There is NOTHING to see at the movie theatre!

Can I borrow your Netflix password?

Movies, in general, have taken a critical bashing as of late and it’s not entirely unwarranted. Let’s face it, the Suits are drunk with sequels and superheroes and don’t really give a hoot what makes sense or doesn’t if it can deliver millions of bodies in potential theme park rides, sequels, spin-offs and merchandise.

Oh how the mighty have fallen #TeamJen #Argowho?

Oh how the mighty have fallen #TeamJen #Argowho?

Films have taken on the business school lingo of a precious asset – a property that exists not solely for its financial value at the theatrical box-office or, heaven forbid, its creative content. Rather, they are seen in most of the top towers and executive suites as a commodity to be leveraged into many, many smaller and larger off-springs –much like a Triple Crown winning horse that is put out for gelding after it serves the greater good.

That’s fine. For them. But it’s not the entire story of 21st century film.

Quite randomly last week I came upon a new list put out by the BBC. NO, DON’T STOP READING! This list actually applies to you – the moviegoer. Or more broadly, the movie fan. Instead of surveying critics and audiences to compile a list of the 100 greatest movies of all-time, or some such subset that would spotlight drama, comedy, action or presumably, even porn or snuff films in the future, they tried something novel. (Note: No, not an actual novel, as in reading – we all know no one does THAT anymore).

Why read when you can see Emily Blunt in the movie version? #duh

Why read when you can see Emily Blunt in the movie version? #duh

Yes, the Brits had the tenacity to compile a list that I, Mr. Movie Fan, had never seen before. That would be the top 100 films of the 21st CENTURY.

Huh? What is that – a list of 10, or maybe 20 movies, most of which none of us have ever seen before? Or want to see? No, surprisingly not at all.

Okay, technically the list is of 102 films and it does stem from 2000-2016 which means the first year it charts is technically not a part of the 21st century – which began in 2001 (Note: Apparently 2000 was an irresistible film year one couldn’t turn away from). But who really cares? The point is, this is a very narrow period where 177 film critics from every country in the world (Note: Antarctica was the exception, which brings up the whole question of climate change and access we don’t want to get into) actually agreed there were 100 plus movies, many of them AMERICAN, that are actually worth watching, remembering and…wait for it…HONORING.

Believe it Olivia.

Believe it Olivia.

In case you are wondering – no, there is not a sequel in the bunch.

In case you are further wondering – yes, there is exactly ONE superhero film in the bunch and you probably have already rightly guessed which one is indeed The ONE. (HINT: Uh no, it’s not The Matrix. Plus, Neo is not really a superhero and anyway, he first appeared in 1999. As for the 2003 sequels – well, let’s not go there).

Which is the pill that helps me take a nap?

Which is the pill that helps me take a nap?

What this list reminds us of is that – WAIT, there are lots of movies I’ve enjoyed in the last 15 (okay 16) years. Sure there are too many clunkers, or cynically made assets. But maybe, just maybe it’s worth forgetting the Netflix password every once in a while and instead go out to an actual theatre before the art form, as we know it, dies altogether. Or worse yet – becomes solely a corporatized asset.

Please be good. Please be good. Please be good. #clingingtohope #heygirl #lalaland

Please be good. Please be good. Please be good. #clingingtohope #heygirl #lalaland

A complete list will be shared below but how about just the top six right here?

  1. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)
  2. In The Mood for Love (2000, Wong-Kar-wai)
  3. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas-Anderson)
  4. Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
  5. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
  6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry and written by CHARLIE freaking KAUFMAN, OKAY?)

All of them original, beautifully made and meaningful. Are they my top six or your top six? Perhaps not. But they are inarguably as good as many of the classic movies from decades before.

Added bonus: This phrase being added to our world.

Added bonus: This phrase being added to our world.

Certainly, any LIST inherently has its head-scratchers and personal duds and this one is clearly among them. Notice I stopped at six because #7 is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which you couldn’t pay me enough money to endure five minutes of ever again. Perhaps this confirms the long held belief that I am a philistine, but that is not the point. We all have our personal Trees. And in fact, I’d pay to watch other glorious Malick films such as Badlands and Days of Heaven over and over if you didn’t bring up the subject of #7 ever again.

That dinosaur sequence though. #neverforget

That dinosaur sequence though. #neverforget

As for some others The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis ranked #10 and #11 respectively. David Fincher’s Zodiac was #12 and Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant Children of Men was #13.

 You want less, well, pretentious? (Your word, not mine). Pan’s Labyrinth was #17, Mad Max: Fury Road was #19, The Social Network was #27, and Wall-E was #29.

Favorites of mine like CHARLIE freakin’ KAUFMAN’s Synecdoche was #20, while Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was #22, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was #24, Christopher Nolan’s Memento was #25 and Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her came in at #28.

Let’s also give separate credit to The Dark Knight at #33 because, well, think of the odds against the whole thing working the way it did when there was merely a blank page and no real concept but a history of…ASSET. 

See Ben, this is how it’s done.

See Ben, this is how it’s done.

As I continued down the list I came across any number of films (40, in all) I hadn’t seen, some I really didn’t care for (Okay, I admit it – I’m too old for Wes Anderson) but others I had forgotten had come out in the not so distant past. Of the latter how about: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, City of God, Brokeback Mountain, Melancholia, Moulin Rouge, Inglorious Bastards, The Great Beauty, The Hurt Locker, Her, Amelie, The Pianist, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Spotlight (Note: I have a very short memory) and Requiem for A Dream.

What pleased me most about this list is that it coincided with the first week of the fall screenwriting class I teach.  The list of top 100 films on everyone’s mind are usually the 1, 2, 3 classic movie punch of Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca. Certainly, these are all great, timeless movies – as are many of the others on that usual classics list.   But for young people – as well as for some of the rest of us – consistently remembering these as the best of what the big screen has to offer can’t help but feel a little depressing at some point. Because it evokes a golden age that is long gone and, very likely, will never return.

Le sigh.

Le sigh.

This is why the BBC did Americans and moviegoers worldwide – not to mention the future of film – a great service by compiling this new grouping of films. Perhaps it doesn’t evoke a new golden age (though maybe it does) but it does prove the movies are alive and well and can be for some time to come. Though only if we get out our pods and mosey on down via our people mover of choice to check some of them out. Judging by the newly motivated faces on some of my students perusing the list, this will continue to happen in the near future. But at the very least, we could give them a little help.

Watching the Gross

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 9.39.34 AM

I thought I’d grown used to the movies I like grossing very little money but it’s sobering. Still, this shouldn’t be surprising. I can now get into films as a senior citizen in some places. I know, I’m shocked too.   When I went to see the Steve “Jobs” movie a few weeks ago I almost passed out. But still paid full price.

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Clearly, I’ve permanently strayed from the “youth” demographic Hollywood covets no matter how many times my peers say 50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 80 is the new 20 and death is something that happens to OTHER people. That’s scary enough. But to realize that not one of my favorite films is among the 50 top grossing movies of the year – well, that’s positively un-American. It’s like my entire country has turned on me when I wasn’t looking. And in more ways than one. On the other hand, it’s not the first time. I lived through the eighties, Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump winning the Oscar yet I am still here whining about it all as our first African American-president completes his second term of office and Birdman was last year’s best picture winner. Inevitably, these types of things, as well as life, do run in cycles.

And yet…

Hard as it is to recognize I have come to understand that like many Americans the movies are my touchstone. Each year at least a handful reflect what myself and our culture were thinking or feeling en masse and, when they worked really well, even showed us alternative ways to cope. Did Michael Keaton really go out the window at the end of Birdman? Who cares – it raised the question of just what are the alternatives we all face when trying to survive as an artist of any kind. And if one believes, as I do, that anything you attempt to do well in life does indeed have some sort of artistic element to it, it is essential we continue to consider these questions. And spend less time pondering how high of a gilded wall we can build around ourselves to keep out those who are different. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country built on a melting pot of difference should be faced with the 2015 Shakespearean question of how we engineer and preserve our current gene pool to exclude as many others as possible.

There’s a reason why, at its essence, drama hasn’t really changed very much since the Elizabethan period or even as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Still works!

Still works!

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to The MOVIES, 2015.

If you’re a member of a Hollywood guild each year you’re fortunate enough to receive DVDs of many of this year’s movies so you don’t have to move your privileged ass off the couch and make the effort to go to the movie theatre if you so prefer not to. (Note: Well, you wouldn’t either if you didn’t have to and had a decent TV setup at home – give me a break)

So being the lazybones (nee whore) that I am I decided that after gorging myself on turkey I’d continue gorging myself on some of the movies I got in the mail and have not yet seen. I also decided to go out to the movie theatres and pay for a few others as well as attend several industry screenings (Note: Yes, for free – I’m not only getting lazy in my old age but also cheap). And what continued to amaze me is that without exception the films that I really enjoyed continue to make very, very little money at the box office. How long before these types of films are not made at all? I fear, not very long.

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I'll ask Matt Damon)

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I’ll ask Matt Damon)

Now before you go saying I’m part of the problem because I’m not going out to see my films enough – you’re only partly right. Like all of you, I should venture out and support my local theatres more than I do. But also know that part of the marketing budgets of all production companies include sending out free DVDs to guild members not to be kind but to get us to VOTE for said film in an enormous array of awards competitions that the industry will use to promote the winners and get you/us – the audience – into the theatres to see or into the stores to buy or into our heads to stream. For better or worse that’s the way the system works. Bottom line dollars.

I suppose this explains why as a Writers Guild member two of the early DVDs I received were for Furious 7 ($353 million domestic box-office gross) and Jurassic World ($652 million). Did anyone really think these would win any writing awards? (Note: That question was rhetorical). No, it was about spreading the word. Well, fyi, I’ve previously seen both a Furious AND a Jurassic movie before and was entertained. I tried briefly with both of these. Oh God. I might be old but I’m not brain dead. Yet. Which is why I turned them off.

As for some of the others – well, here I am to do the job that I was sent to do by the studio overlords – spreading the word. (Note: As if I wouldn’t give my opinion anyway).

TRUMBO

He is Spartacus?

He is Spartacus?

This is the story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and how his intellectual liberal leanings sent him to jail for a year in the 1950s merely for being subversively un-American as a member of the Communist party. (Note: Think of him as a Muslim under a future Trump administration).

More interesting is the tale it tells of how Trumbo, once out of a jail, worked secretly writing tacky low-budget movies under assumed names and got his other unemployable writer friends jobs doing the same via a hidden writer’s clearing house he ran out of his house. With the help of his wife and children. Who answered five different telephone lines and served as their script couriers.

As played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, this Trumbo is a witty, erudite crusader, family man who takes advantage of the people around him while at the same time loving them and his country in the most unorthodox of ways. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that will surely get him an Oscar nomination. The movie takes a long time to get going and in the first half especially feels a bit like a choppy, TV movie biopic from the 1970s. But ultimately it’s smart, breezy, clever and not without some meaning. And slickly made by director Jay Roach.

AND — It’s made less than a $1 million after three weeks of limited release.

Verdict: Watch it.

TRUTH

Would you... Rather?

Would you… Rather?

I was where most of you probably are on this. Robert Redford playing Dan Rather in a movie that shows us how Rather got pushed out of the anchor chair at CBS because of a 60 Minutes story he did on George W. Bush’s questionable military record of service? A story where sources recanted their original claims but nevertheless a story that was never proven factually inaccurate?

#1 – I don’t want to hear any more about Dubya. #2 – Redford is about as similar to Dan Rather as I am. #3 – It’s my private time, I want to be entertained by a film not forced to think about unpleasant stuff I was forced to live through all too recently.

Well, the film is not really about Dubya at all but about how the news you see on TV is put together and just how influential political dynasties can be “behind the scenes.” More importantly, Redford might not look anything like Rather but he’s got his speaking cadence down pat and is ultimately absolutely believable as the veteran Texas newsman – in fact it’s the best he’s been in a movie in many years. Who knew? Not any of us because no one is going to see it. Since it’s release in October it’s grossed about $2.5 million.

Oh, and then there’s Cate Blanchett starring as Rather’s real-life producer Mary Mapes, a tough-talking Texan she gets exactly right because she doesn’t slather on the accent but instead accentuates her intelligence. The whole film is smart. And –

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING.

SICARIO

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

My students will hate me for this because they seem to love this movie. Why? I have zero idea. Emily Blunt is as good as she can be as an FBI agent drawn into the web of breaking up a Mexican drug cartel by her CIA overlords as well as by others. But…it’s a labyrinth of action with character development and logic so spare as to be almost non-existent. And after a while it simply becomes preposterous. And a bore.

I’ve experienced first-hand as a writer notes on the strategy of throwing audiences right into the world of a movie without much of a convincing setup and allowing the viewer to play catch up. This sometimes works – as it did in the first season of True Detective. And it often times fails, as it does here. But then again, it depends what you mean by failure. Sicario has grossed $49 million in the U.S. alone and another $34 million overseas so far. That makes it a bit more than a modest success in the world of the balance sheet of a film with no above the title movie star or director. It’s also a world where logic and dialogue don’t matter as much the various kinds of actions that are ultimately delivered.

Verdict: SKIP IT. Though you could do worse (Note: See Furious AND Jurassic).

CAROL

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner... what can ya say?

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner… what can ya say?

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two seemingly mismatched women falling in love in the repressive 1950s under the direction of Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). This movie was MADE for me!! You’d think.

It’s beautiful to look at. Cate Blanchett’s mink coat and shimmering blonde hair and red lipstick are breathtaking. As is every single room, piece of jewelry and choice of scenery and period motor vehicle and hotel room and tacky apartment and cheap motel room. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s a movie in love with artifice – and itself. The drama is real and sometimes palpable but as someone is said to have once said, “it’s like watching paint dry.” The same emotional beats are played over and over. Time and again.   It’s based on the seminal lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.   But never for one moment do you feel as if you’re watching anything other than a book unspooling in movie time without any of the nuanced language that made it so special.

The two actresses are wonderful. Everything is pretty. And it does show us how much a great deal of the world has changed. But…well….

Verdict: PASS – which is not to say there is not a great deal of skill and intelligence here. Would I watch it before Jurassic and Furious again? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I should just force myself to get all the way through the latter two for the first time. Though Carol needs the money more. It’s grossed about $500,000 in 10 days of limited release. And I doubt there’s a ton more to come. DVD/streaming sales? Maybe. But…OK, I’ll stop now.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

A Spielberg movie written by.... The Coen Brothers?

A Spielberg movie written by…. The Coen Brothers? 

I popped the DVD to this in and had low expectations. I mean, it’s the tale of the reluctant negotiator spy type American hero of the 1950s as played by Tom Hanks and directed by Steve Spielberg that somehow you believe deep down in your soul you’ve seen before…. but directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman or by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Except it’s not any of those. Or really that much like them.

Tom Hanks is very good, very believable and very likeable – in an authentic, throwback Americana way. It’s a tough act to pull off an insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator in period clothes but somehow you buy it all. At this point it’d be shocking if Mr. Spielberg did not direct an infinitely watchable movie. And this one is pretty darn watchable – thanks also in great part to Mark Rylance’s brilliantly understated performance in a role you need to see rather than read about from me. He anchors the film. And if you think that’s easy when you’re not a movie star, you’re wrong.

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING. It won’t change your life but it’s engaging. Though at a $67 million box-office gross it’s the equivalent of Trumbo or Truth in dollars for a Spielberg pic. That may not be fair but it’s the way the industry thinks. And for our future films bodes a bit ominous.

Feel free to agree – or disagree. But just know the top five grossing films of 2015 are Jurassic World ($652 million); Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 million); Inside Out ($356 million); Furious 7 ($353 million) and Minions ($336 million). And that’s just in the U.S. alone. Films that are more adult – nee a bit more complicated or intellectually challenging – are in trouble. And need our support. At theatres, on DVD, or yes, even for free. It’s who we are. Or were. Our choice.

Oh you'll be adding me to that list pretty soon....

Oh you’ll be adding me to that list pretty soon….

P.S. Note #1: I did very much enjoy Inside Out but it’s an animated film and they’re in a category of their own. This is not a snob thing but everyone likes at least one animated movie a year except a dear friend of mine who I still can’t convince to embrace Aladdin – the gayest animated movie that’s ever been made. I’ll work on him, though.

P.S. Note #2 – Just got home from a screening of The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne and his co-star, the Swedish film actress Alicia Vikander, will both receive Oscar nominations. As will others behind the scenes. It’s mainstream yet unusual. Thought-provoking though not too complicated. And timely in that it follows one of the first medical cases of gender reassignment. Verdict: See it. People actually speak in full sentences, and often more than one sentence at a time. Plus, nothing blows up.

At least that’s something.