Monday, January 9, 2017

The Best Films of 2016

The last year has not been very good. The movies have been all right – the first five on this list are unquestionably masterpieces – but life has been uneasy. For me, it’s been a long year of broken computers, horrible cinema audiences and even worse politics.

I think I know what I need to do this next year. Be a little less guarded, and try to open myself up in real conversations with people. Tell people what I mean more, and, when appropriate, what they mean to me. I’m not very good at this. As they say in My Dinner with Andre, “We can’t be direct, so we end up saying the weirdest things.” I feel like that. Like my whole life is a series of regurgitated responses and I’m not really saying what I mean. I also want to absorb the content of things more. Take a few more chances. Let’s hope the New Year brings that.

I sometimes find myself at a distance from a lot of movies – they’re not affecting me like they used to. Most of that has to do with the distractions. Here are the films that broke through the noise.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for all of these films.

1. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

There are so few good films about religion – particularly ones that ask questions rather than give answers. In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a powerful question is posed: is it right to renounce one’s faith if such an act ends the suffering of others?

In the seventeenth century, two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), travel to Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly renounced Christianity under torture by the Japanese. Upon arriving in Japan in a search for Ferreira, the priests give hope to a village of persecuted Japanese Christians, but it’s not long before Rodrigues is captured and held before the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). The Japanese demand that Rodrigues step on an image of Christ and renounce his faith, and in return, they will release the persecuted Christians they hold captive.

If renouncing his religion means suffering will end for so many people, isn’t that the right thing to do? Is it selfish to cling onto faith when the only person you’re saving is yourself? And is the Christian gospel something truly to be shared in every nation? These are some of the many questions Scorsese asks here.

The character of the believer plagued with doubts has been seen before in Scorsese’s work – namely in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), in which Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) struggles to accept his position as the savior of mankind. If Jesus is both God and man, then he must be susceptible to man’s temptations – that is the conceit behind The Last Temptation of Christ. Here, in Silence, you have a Christ-like figure tested again and again, and though he succumbs to a kind of defeat by the film’s end, his faith is still there – hidden, dormant, silent.

Andrew Garfield makes every moment of doubt and uncertainty real for us – he’s likely to get nominated for Best Actor this year for Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, but he should be nominated for this film.

This is the most austere, serious picture Scorsese has ever made. The explosive camerawork, rapid-fire editing and brilliant use of popular music – which are among the qualities that first drew me to the filmmaker as a young boy – are absent here. The questions the film asks are so pure, the suffering of its lead characters so intense on its own, that any kind of kinetic, whiplash-inducing filmmaking would betray the subject matter. Don’t think for a second that I’m dismissing either style – after all, Scorsese’s last film, the exhilarating The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), is the best film of this decade – although Silence may very well give it a run for its money.

This is the film Scorsese has wanted to direct for nearly thirty years, and it’s understandable why it was so difficult to make. Based on Shûsaku Endô’s novel, the subject matter of Silence is unlike anything else being released in Hollywood’s current climate, particularly with this kind of budget and such a wide release. It was awe-inspiring to hear the silence in the cinema as it played – there was a real reverence for the passion of this filmmaker and his images onscreen (I hope everyone is as lucky to get this cinema experience – sadly, I doubt that will be the case, as today’s audiences are conditioned in such a way that people won’t know what to do with a film as meditative as Silence). Scorsese recently said he hasn’t watched much in the way of current cinema because the images don’t mean anything anymore. Here, they mean something.

His films, as Thelma Schoonmaker once said, are all about immersing the audience in a particular world and making you feel it. Here, you feel the inner torment of Rodrigues at every turn, but there is also an interesting remove here that I haven’t often seen in a Scorsese picture. Many scenes unfold with a straightforwardness that suggests a viewpoint other than the two priests – almost a divine presence observing these events and remaining silent throughout the suffering.

The silence in the title ostensibly refers to the silence of God as Rodrigues and others endure their pain. But there’s another kind of silence near the film’s end – the silence of the priests who give up their devotion to God. And yet, in the final haunting image of the film, we see how in their silence, there is a kind of prayer all its own.

There is a character, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who lies, betrays and watches his own family murdered while he rejects his faith and still lives. It’s an ongoing joke in the film that he constantly wants to confess to Rodrigues after he’s yet again done something wrong (in one instance, betraying Rodrigues and leading him to the Inquisitor).

But near the end, once all of the priests in Japan have renounced their faith and Christianity is spoken of no more, he is the only one to mention Christ to Rodrigues. Despite his constant wavering of faith, Kichijiro, in a way, brings Rodrigues’s awareness back to Christ.

And there is another question. Who is the nobler sufferer? The one who refuses to abandon his faith, or the sinner who apostatizes, again and again, and yet seeks forgiveness and continues to believe despite his sins?

Silence is a monumental achievement – the best film of the year.

2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to Margaret (2011), one of the greatest and most unheralded films of this decade, was always going to be one of my new favorite movies. But Manchester by the Sea overwhelmed me beyond my expectations with its raw power and heartfelt exploration of grief. There’s a sequence midway through this movie that goes down as one of the most powerful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen.

I also really responded to the film’s lead character, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) – someone who, by his own admission, can’t beat his depression. He’s so disturbed and haunted by his past that, try as he might to be an outgoing person, ultimately he can’t fight against it.

The film does not end with failure, but with an admission that some people simply can never be the same. It’s in this way that the film understands grief in a more mature and honest way than most other movies out there. Both Lee and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), grow in unexpected ways, but their needs are incompatible. Patrick needs a guardian after the death of his father, but Lee simply can’t move back to his hometown – there will always be too many ghosts.

Even though the film is a slightly more contained character piece than Margaret, it is still bursting at the seams with fascinating supporting characters and a rich sense of location. At the center of the film is Affleck's lead performance, which is on another level from any other I've seen this year.

The scene in which he visits Kyle Chandler's body is so affectingly quiet and restrained - it's just one moment of beauty in a film full of them.

Here are a few more: the moment in which Affleck gently packs the pictures of his children one-by-one, after tossing his other belongings carelessly into a box. Hedges walking into the bedroom and staring at the pictures. Hedges visiting his father's body – so brisk and almost comical compared to the earlier scene with Affleck visiting the body. The scene with Affleck and the microwave - just staring at it, considering his past. Lonergan just knocks it out of the park, again and again, with these small, specific moments.

As usual, Lonergan builds a world of unbelievably complex characters with inner lives that extend far beyond the picture. I am in awe of him and what he has accomplished with this film, Margaret and You Can Count On Me (2000).

And it's worth mentioning that the flashbacks are as well implemented as I've seen in a film. They're quick and sudden, and so perfectly placed in the overall narrative, offering context and heartfelt backstory to the lives unfolding in front of our eyes. Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful film, and in a different year, it would have placed at the top of this list.

3. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

The feeling of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! lingered with me days after seeing it. It’s a deceptively powerful film, perhaps because underneath all of the good times and hard-partying, there’s a profound sadness that’s only revealed when it’s all over.

I'm amazed how similarly the film works as Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood (2014) - there's really not much melancholy in the movie itself, but the experience of watching it and then leaving the cinema allows the sadness to slowly seep in afterward. Suddenly, you realize you can’t hang out with these guys anymore, and you want the good times to continue. The film’s cumulative power is so much bigger than I realized during the casualness of its individual scenes, and it isn’t until the final quiet moments of the picture, right before Let the Good Times Roll by The Cars starts playing, that the full impact of what you’ve seen hits you.

The moment that best hints at this sadness in the film is during the team’s baseball practice, in which Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) is quietly called off the field by the coach, told he has to leave the team, and shakes the coach’s hand (it’s later revealed he’s thirty years old and fudged his transcript to get back onto a college team – he simply wants to relive his glory years).

“Here for a good time, not a long time,” Willoughby says to the others in a down-to-earth manner as he’s called off the field, echoing the film’s tagline.

The other guys don’t know how to react, and we’re quickly whisked away from the potentially melancholy moment by the ridiculously bad sportsmanship of Jay Niles (Juston Street). It’s a technique that recalls something Martin Scorsese does in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), where Jordan Belfort briefly comes face-to-face with one of the deeply disturbing consequences of his lifestyle (a co-worker’s suicide) and then immediately brushes it aside and moves on to the next fun thing. These movies don’t want to linger in the melancholy, but we’re always aware it’s there, bubbling just beneath the surface.

In a strange way, Everybody Wants Some!! both doubles down on the partying in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), and yet it’s somehow even more nostalgic and elegiac than that movie. It captures what you wish college was like, in its most idealized form.

Leaving the theater, I felt something I've experienced after some of the best moments of my life – when, after being surrounded by friends, the noise settles down and you slowly realize that that feeling won't return ever again – not that exact feeling, anyway. In a way, this feeling is what’s going to come over the characters in this movie in the near future. They’re all on their way to unremarkable adulthoods, and it’s doubtful the rest of their lives will live up to what they experience here.

The structure here is awesome – rather than cutting from one baseball practice to a wild party and then back to another baseball practice, we just get one long practice scene. By not cutting away from any one location too quickly, we get the most out of the hang-out feeling, like we’re really living in these scenes. Linklater and editor Sandra Adair give every scene breathing room – we’re not just jumping from one thing to another. And Linklater does such a good job of introducing fifteen central characters and helping us know and understand each of them.

And I’m amazed by how subtly Linklater is able to infuse a sense of melancholy throughout the movie. I think he partially does it through music, and by showing these characters charging ahead for their youthful goals that, sometimes, seem a little sad. Will they remember any of these frivolous games in ten years? Will any of this matter?

Take, for instance, the scene at the county-western bar, where the guys re-locate after Jay gets them kicked out of Sound Machine. One of them, Nesbit (Austin Amelio), rides the bar’s mechanical bull ferociously - and as the tune Driving My Life Away by Eddie Rabbit plays, I suddenly felt a great deal of despair.

It's something about the match between music, activity and the character's goal – he’s dead set on riding that bull as well as he can. And it made me deeply sad - for the character, for the thrills and highs we try to achieve every night as young people. It just reminded me of something. I don’t know what, exactly. Maybe it felt reminiscent of a time, place and feeling I've shared, and the truly insignificant goals we’ve all embarked upon that only distract from the larger loneliness of a given night on the town. That’s all here, in this one quick scene, with that song playing and Nesbit riding that bull.

Sometimes I think a movie is well made, but I resist connecting to it, or feel that it can’t be one of my favorites, because the characters aren’t anything like me, or the picture doesn’t mirror my own experience. But watching Everybody Wants Some!!, I was reminded that that’s not how great cinema works. Sometimes great cinema shows you what you wish your life could be, and makes you nostalgic for something you’ve never experienced. You respond deeply to the feeling of the picture without it necessarily reflecting anything in your life.

More than anything, this movie made me feel like I missed out. It’s what I imagine an alternate life could have been like, if I was just a little different from the way I am. A lot of what happens in the movie is almost like what my life growing up in Texas was supposed to be like. The characters in this film are the guys from my high school (in one case, quite literally), and I always felt a little left out of this kind of thing – which is why I want to make the version of this film from the outsider’s perspective (more on that in a different post). But Everybody Wants Some!! warmly invites you to be a part of the action for two hours. In Linklater's universe, we're all connected, if only for a short amount of time.

4. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

After seeing the film three times and finding each experience more rewarding than the last, there’s no question in my mind that La La Land is one of the most original and immensely lovable movies of the last several years. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) was one hell of a ride, but he outdoes himself here with a sprawling and ambitious musical that’s flat-out infectious in its energy.

What’s truly inspiring about La La Land is how impressive the film is on a technical level (those one-takes!) and yet how the visual wonders of the film take a backseat to the real feeling and emotion at the center of the picture. This is chiefly because the two leads are the endlessly charismatic and talented Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and also because the original music both elevates the story and creates a feeling that’s exalting, sad, joyous and wistful all the same.

La La Land is also, among many other things, tailor-made for aspiring artists. In fact, the ending outright acknowledges the way in which we remember and romanticize our days of aspiration. Just as Whiplash offered a complicated ending that elevated everything that came before it, so does La La Land end on a similarly complex note. The film also asks the heartbreaking question – what happens when nobody cares about your art?

In the end, there’s no way Stone and Gosling’s characters can stay together and both realize their dreams. But they’ll always have that formidable time together in their memories, and perhaps even remember it in the Hollywood version of their choosing – which is the bittersweet Casablanca (1943) ending the movie deserves.

I must say that Stone in particular is just luminous in this film – her charm has never been so effectively used. Although it’s tough to pick between her and Natalie Portman (Jackie – see below) for Best Actress, I think I’d have to go with Stone – it’s the performance of a lifetime.

5. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

I don’t have much to write about David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, other than what about that damn movie! I mean, how about that moment when Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) – spoiler ahead – leans over in horror as his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), is shot dead? They’ve spent the whole film teasing each other and trading casual barbs, and then suddenly, in that one moment, we see how much Alberto really means to Marcus. It’s just about heartbreaking.

Or how about that shot when Toby (Chris Pine) stays in the restaurant and converses with the waitress, while we watch his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), rob another bank through the window? I mean, how about that!

I loved this movie.

6. Fences (Denzel Washington)

Fences is a powerful, stirring adaptation of August Wilson’s masterful play, with two of the best performances of the year from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who once had great promise as a baseball player, but landed in jail instead. Davis is his long-suffering wife Rose, who stands beside Troy even as he begins a downward spiral.

Davis nearly brought me to tears with her performance here. I was reminded of why I loved this movie so much when she recently won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She called her own father “the original Troy” – he was a man who “groomed horses, had a fifth grade education, didn’t know how to read until he was 15.” But “he had a story and it deserved to be told, and August Wilson told it.”

Yes, his story does deserve to be told. Troy is by no means a perfect man, but he’s stuck in a strange time in 1956, having come after his deceased father, who worked in the cotton fields, but before his son, who will undoubtedly have more opportunities than Troy. He works hard, puts food on the table and has raised his sons with Rose to be good young men – and yet his aspirations and dreams have been thwarted, which has turned him bitter and poisonous. Watching his disappointment turn into a full-out breakdown is heartbreaking, and Fences does justice to this all-American tragedy. Wilson created something on the level of Death of a Salesman from an African-American perspective, and it’s unquestionably one of the greatest plays of modern American drama.

What I also admired about Fences is that it doesn’t hide its theatrical roots – this is unquestionably a play adapted for film. Yes, it has only a few locations, but there’s nothing more cinematic than well-blocked scenes making excellent use of their space, and Washington stages the film wondrously. More than anything, though, the words matter here, and they absolutely sear as delivered by Washington, Davis and the rest of the cast.

7. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)

Arrival still reveals its many layers after several viewings. I thought I had a handle on it after seeing it the second time, but even then, I seemed to miss a key component of its mystery. It’s a triumph of mood and atmosphere, but also of ideas, with its concept of non-linear time being rather ingenious.

Amy Adams is outstanding here as Louise Banks, a linguist carrying an unknown weight as she attempts to communicate with one of twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts that have landed on earth. Her depression seems to make sense to us given flashbacks early in the film – until we realize that the specifics of her grief aren’t exactly what she (or we) think.

I’ll dive deeply into one plot specific that still eludes me (again, major spoilers ahead). With the aliens granting her the ability to view time in a non-linear fashion, does that give Louise the power to change the future if she wishes? I didn’t think about this after seeing the film twice, but upon another viewing, someone pointed out that there’s a key line that suggests otherwise. I look forward to watching this film again and discovering more – it’s that kind of picture.

This is really the career pinnacle for director Denis Villeneuve, who, with Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2015) and now this film, has become one of the best and most exciting new directors in Hollywood.

8. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

Jackie should be celebrated, first and foremost, for being light years away from the by-the-numbers biopic it could have so easily been. The film makes an American tragedy an experiential drama that feels like a nightmare, and does such a terrific job of dramatizing how traumatic the assassination of President John F. Kennedy must have been for everyone involved – particularly Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman).

There’s no question that Portman’s performance here is extraordinary – she gives us a real window into this private woman’s world. And yet there’s so much else to love about this movie that risks being ignored – the beautiful conversations between Jackie and her priest (John Hurt); the supporting performances from Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup; the haunting score by Mica Levi; and the cinematography by Stephane Fontaine, all of which add to the mood of this piece.

Even the blocking in this movie has an unreal quality to it. Characters will sit in one position, talking to one another, and then with a quick cut, they’ll be in a completely different position in the same room. These kinds of choices give the movie an ethereal quality that helps us understand what this experience may have been like for Mrs. Kennedy. Jackie is such an interesting, unusual film, and the bold choices it makes only compliment Portman’s extraordinary work in the lead role.

9. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

It's a miracle that a movie as contemplative as Knight of Cups exists in this day and age. Terrence Malick finds real beauty here in the decadence of Los Angeles, with locations as evocative as anything in his filmography (production designer Jack Fisk does amazing work, as always). Malick also benefits from having an incredibly strong, emotive lead actor in Christian Bale, who is fascinating to watch in every quiet moment of this film. He seems to relish Malick's style of filmmaking, inviting us to share his character's very real struggle without having anything close to a traditional scene of dialogue.

The scenes with Bale's father (Brian Dennehy) and his brother (Wes Bentley) are some of the best in the film. Cate Blanchett makes a memorable impression as Bale's ex-wife, in a sequence in which we come to understand so much about his character through his reactions to her work as a nurse.

It's interesting to see Malick film the modern-day emptiness of a heavily materialistic culture, partially because I'm so used to seeing the natural world represented in his films. This is only Malick's second non-period piece (after 2013’s To the Wonder), and I love seeing him capture our world in a way that emphasizes both the beauty and the trappings of a decadent wasteland.

Structuring the film in sections named after tarot cards fits so well with this story of a man on a quest to find meaning in his life and world. The experience of a hard-partying Hollywood player has never been put onscreen quite like this before, with so much contemplation as to what it all means and what role he's playing. There's a very memorable scene in which Bale's apartment is robbed and he's held at gunpoint. One of the burglars asks why there isn't anything of value in his home, and Bale doesn't have an answer.

As always with Malick, I found myself lost in Knight of Cups in a beautiful way, and I was made a little less aware of the current time and space around me. There's no way in his pictures to really know where we are structurally in the story, and so our minds are free to wander and take in the beauty of each moment. We simply exist in the space of the movie, and that is a wonderful thing.

10. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

I wasn’t sure what to put for #10. Should it be one of the films by two of my favorite directors – Clint Eastwood’s amazing, rock-solid Sully or Oliver Stone’s underappreciated Snowden? Or one of the two great films by Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Loving)? What about the funniest movie of the year, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, or Andrea Arnold’s hypnotic American Honey?

I’m going with an early-year favorite – Hail, Caesar!, the latest parable from Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s at once a loving tribute to the Hollywood studio pictures of the 1950s and also a riotous takedown of the wobbly rules that keep the studio system in place.

And, as always with the Coens, it’s about much more. Josh Brolin, as studio head Eddie Mannix, seeks advice from a priest in the beginning and ending of the film. He’s morally conflicted about whether to take a new job with a large salary in the airline industry, or to stay at the studio and continue the more difficult job of managing out-of-line actors and overseeing the day-to-day business of moviemaking. But whether he likes it or not, there is a future coming his way that he can’t control, and one whose influence he can’t always slap out of his actors – or can he?

The Rest of the Best

11. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
12. Snowden (Oliver Stone)
13. Sully (Clint Eastwood)
14. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
15. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
16. Swiss Army Man (Daniels)
17. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
18. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
19. Weiner (Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
20. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
21. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
22. The BFG (Steven Spielberg)
23. Café Society (Woody Allen)
24. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
25. Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
26. The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance)
27. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
28. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
29. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
30. Miss Sloane (John Madden)

Other Movies I Loved and Admired:

Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone)
Rules Don’t Apply (Warren Beatty)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)
The Hollars (John Krasinski)
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood)
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Terrence Malick)
The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker)
A War (Tobias Lindholm)
Bleed for This (Ben Younger)
Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass)
Triple 9 (John Hillcoat)
Sausage Party (Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon)
Elvis and Nixon (Liza Johnson)
The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor)
Money Monster (Jodie Foster)
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards)
Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush)

Best Director

Winner: Martin Scorsese, Silence

Runners-Up: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea; Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!; Damien Chazelle, La La Land; David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water; Denzel Washington, Fences; Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Best Actor

Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Runners-Up: Denzel Washington, Fences; Andrew Garfield, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Tom Hanks, Sully; Colin Farrell, The Lobster

Best Actress

Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land

Runners-Up: Natalie Portman, Jackie; Amy Adams, Arrival; Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane; Isabelle Huppert, Elle; Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Runners-Up: Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea; Liam Neeson, Silence; Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie; Ben Foster, Hell or High Water; Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!; Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Viola Davis, Fences

Runners-Up: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea and Certain Women; Lily Gladstone, Certain Women; Margo Martindale, The Hollars

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Manchester by the Sea

Runners-Up: La La Land; Everybody Wants Some!!; Hell or High Water; Hail, Caesar!

Best Adapted Screenplay: Silence

Runners-Up: Fences; Arrival; Sully

Monday, May 30, 2016

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch!)

It's been a little while since my last blog entry, but I'm back! Near the end of last year, I made an acting reel, mainly comprised of footage from Alex Fofonoff's Blood and Thunder (in which I starred) and my films Jack and Lucas Go To A Wedding, Jake the Cinephile and With Love, Marty. Take a look below if you're interested, and please share - I'd love to get more acting work (if anyone needs a Jack-like character in their movie, I'm your man!) Look for memorable appearances by excellent acting partners like Desi Domo, Alexis Gay, Bethany McHugh and Lucas Loredo. Thank you to Bobb Barito for his sound design and to Alex for so much great footage from Blood and Thunder.


Jack Kyser Acting Reel 2015 from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

Speaking of Blood and Thunder, we had a great first screening of the film back in December. It was truly an honor to share Alex's film on a big screen with a group of friends and collaborators. We're still in the process of getting the movie out there and submitting it to festivals, and I'm very excited for more people to see it.

My friend Marissa Rutka has a great new web series titled Coffee Catch-Ups that's online now, and it was a lot of fun to be a part of the production (and a subject in the series). You can find the two episodes where I'm featured before - in the first, Morgan Ingari and I recount the eye-watering events of Hurricane Sandy, and in the second, I go into Jake the Cinephile mode and offer out my rather obsessive-compulsive idea of perfection. Keep watching the series for more memorable guests and friends, like Charlotte Arnoux, Adam Boese, Nick Tanis and Emmy-winning guest star Jon Annunziata. The series was also nominated in the Documentary & Factual category of T.O. Webfest and will play at their festival later this month, so that's exciting!





In other news, my movie Jake the Cinephile is now available to watch online on Vimeo! I had a lot of fun screening this film at NewFilmmakers New York and The Beacon Film Festival (Freeze Frame) a few years ago, and I can't thank all of my extraordinary collaborators on the film enough. Here it is:


Jake the Cinephile - A Film By Jack Kyser from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

My senior thesis film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory is winding down its festival run after screening at a number of festivals last year. We were proud to be nominated as a Finalist for Best Student Film at the Blow Up-Chicago International Arthouse Film Festival in December. And earlier, on Saturday, November 21st, I was thrilled to screen You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory at the Katra Film Series with some other great films. After the film screenings at Katra, there was a Q&A with the other filmmakers, where I was joined by my great lead actor Mike Wesolowski.

On Friday, April 22nd, By Sidney Lumet, the wonderful documentary on which I was an associate producer and assistant editor, had a special free screening at the Tribeca Film Festival at the SVA Theatre, followed by a lively Q&A with panelists Jonathan Demme, Treat Williams, Amy Ryan and Jenny Lumet moderated by director Nancy Buirski. It was a particularly exciting day because, before the screening, I was part of the production team on an excellent interview with Mr. Williams, where he discussed shooting Lumet's masterpiece Prince of the City (1981). From both that interview and the post-screening talkback, I learned so much great New York City filmmaking history in the span of a few hours.

By Sidney Lumet received a lot of great press in advance of its screening at Tribeca. Rolling Stone listed the film as one of fifteen movies they couldn't wait to see at the festival, and the Village Voice selected it as one of the Best of Tribeca.

The trailer for By Sidney Lumet is also now available for the world to see - you can watch it here. Earlier this year, the film screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. But, for me, the most exciting screening of By Sidney Lumet was at the Austin Film Festival last October, where it played at the historic Paramount Theatre. It was a great afternoon screening, and a good number of my friends and family members were able to come see the picture on the big screen. Nancy held an excellent Q&A after the film was over onstage (I was also able to see a number of other films at the festival, including YouthBrooklynLegend and Coming Through the Rye, and meet one of my favorite actors, Chris Cooper, for the second time).

By Sidney Lumet spans Lumet's entire career, from 12 Angry Men (1957) to Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), and it's really been great to see the film and Lumet's work so justly celebrated over the last year.

Meanwhile, Loving, the narrative film adaptation of Nancy's first film, The Loving Story (2011), wrapped production last fall, and earlier this year Focus Features bought the film to release in the fall. Directed by the astounding Jeff Nichols (Take ShelterMudMidnight Special) and starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga and Michael Shannon, Loving recently made its world premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it was the talk of the festivalLoving is shaping up to be the second masterful film by Nichols this year (after Midnight Special, which I'll discuss below), and it's a very exciting time for Nancy's career.

The Cannes line-up this year, by the way, was particularly exciting - in addition to Loving, there were new films from Sean Penn (The Last Face), Woody Allen (Cafe Society), Paul Schrader (Dog Eat Dog, starring Nicolas Cage) and Jim Jarmusch (Paterson), along with a special screening of Jonathan Jakubowicz's Hands of Stone to honor star Robert De Niro, who is supposed to give another great performance in the film. And in the absolute best news of the festival, STX bought the international rights for Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, which is the movie I've been waiting for my entire life. If The Irishman is indeed moving forward, it's the best news of the century.

By the way, I suspect Penn's The Last Face (which was received poorly) is a good film, and critics are simply making it difficult for the movie to find a distributor. Meanwhile, most studio crap gets a pass - I'll have a bit more to say on critics dismissing interesting cinema while giving bloated, uninteresting superhero films way too much leeway a little later.

On Saturday, April 23rd, ten years after the best concert of my life (seeing The Rolling Stones in Zilker Park in Austin), I went to the only concert that can ever top it - finally, after waiting for so long, I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert. That's right, I went down to The River to worship at the altar of The Boss. His two performances at Brooklyn's Barclays Center marked the end of The River Tour 2016, in which Springsteen and the E Street Band performed the entirety of their 1980 album The River (along with a large number of other Springsteen songs). As you might expect, I rocked out. From the homemade Springsteen t-shirts worn by fans congregating at the nearby Shake Shack to the power and majesty of the music itself, this concert was three and a half hours of joy. The River is such a beautiful, haunting album (here's a link to some of the videos I took on my phone during the concert).

And his live performances of these classic songs were as full of exuberance and passion as I've heard (though I feel quite familiar with his live work, having watched recordings of his concerts for years now). There was simply so much energy in songs like Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, Born to Run, Badlands, Out in the Street, I'm A Rocker, Cadillac Ranch, Crush On You, Two Hearts and You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch). He crowd-surfed, he threw multiple guitars off-stage (toward someone waiting to catch them), he got a married couple onstage to slow-dance, he danced like a madman, he busted through the crowd like The Boss.

And then there were the songs that nearly moved me to tears. He opened with Purple Rain, as this was two days after the tragic passing of Prince. And then The River stand-outs Fade Away, Stolen Car, The River and Independence Day broke my heart, along with two of his most emotional and triumphant songs, Lonesome Day and The Rising.

Earlier this year, my roommate Bobb got a vinyl record player for our apartment, and my used copy of The River I purchased from Other Music (which is unfortunately closing in June) has received more play than almost any other record in our collection. It's just a masterpiece, and as someone who considers Bruce Springsteen my favorite musician, I'm embarrassed I hadn't explored it and appreciated it the same way I have with Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., The Rising, Magic, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Devils and Dust and so many other seminal Springsteen albums until this year.

April 29th was the fourteen year anniversary of my dear dad John Kyser leaving this earth - what a fun, loving man he was. He is deeply missed. To the right, you'll see some pictures taken by my great mom Gretchen Kyser.

Earlier in March, we held the Second Annual Lip Sync Battle Contest at my apartment, where friends attended and took turns performing sections (or the entirety of) songs that they chose (and rehearsed) before the competition. To commemorate the one year anniversary of our first party, I edited together a trailer of our performances from last year's inaugural contest. Take a look here and marvel at the talent on display.

Congratulations to our outrageously talented winners Mo Faramawy, Marissa Rutka, Taylor Frey and Alex Schaefer, as well as our Special Jury Prize winners Jon Annunziata and Emma Viles (traveling all the way from Boston!). There were magical performances by everyone and excellent judging all around.

We're not even half-way through the year, but there have already been several outstanding new film releases - although it's sometimes disturbingly difficult to find them when so many screens are devoted to the latest superhero monstrosity. In all seriousness, any self-proclaimed lover of film owes it to himself or herself to actively go out and see the new films from Richard Linklater, Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols and Joel and Ethan Coen in a movie theater. It is more important than ever to support great cinema and choose wisely, particularly when nearly every screen in the city is dedicated to garbage (even when the garbage is supposedly "good," I simply find myself bored, desperately wanting to watch a real movie). Many, many worthy films open every Friday, and they're often lucky to survive even for two weeks in New York. I shudder to think how many films like Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (2011) I've missed and have flown under the radar - and I'm someone who keeps up regularly with what's out there.

In my last post, I wrote in detail about my love for Linklater's flat-out amazing Everybody Wants Some!! Instead of making a top ten list this year, I might just list the ten best uses of music in the film. Linklater's new movie deserved a wide release, but Paramount Pictures didn't let that happen. Anyone who has seen the movie has fallen in love with it, but the studio simply didn't give the picture the chance it deserved and allow word-of-mouth to spread. Linklater is a national treasure, and actor Glen Powell delivers a star-making performance here (plus, my friend Jenna Marie Sab plays the mud wrestling champ, and Bernie Tiede served as the set cat wrangler).

It's a miracle that a movie as contemplative as Malick's Knight of Cups exists in this day and age. Richard Brody wrote a great piece on the film for The New Yorker (it's worth noting that Brody is one of the only film critics who actually seems to appreciate daring filmmaking anymore - some of the reviews for Knight of Cups would lead you to believe your money would be better spent seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).

Malick finds real beauty in the decadence of Los Angeles, with locations as evocative as anything in his filmography (production designer Jack Fisk does amazing work, as always). Malick also benefits from having an incredibly strong, emotive lead actor in Christian Bale, who is fascinating to watch in every quiet moment of this film. He seems to relish Malick's style of filmmaking, inviting us to share his character's very real struggle without having anything close to a traditional scene of dialogue.

The scenes with Bale's father (Brian Dennehy) and his brother (Wes Bentley) are some of the best in the film. Cate Blanchett makes a memorable impression as Bale's ex-wife, in a sequence in which we come to understand so much about his character through his reactions to her work as a nurse.

It's interesting to see Malick film the modern-day emptiness of a heavily materialistic culture, partially because I'm so used to seeing the natural world represented in his films. This is only Malick's second non-period piece (after To the Wonder), and I love seeing him capture our world in a way that emphasizes both the beauty and the trappings of a decadent wasteland.

Structuring the film in sections named after tarot cards fits so well with this story of a man on a quest to find meaning in his life and world. The experience of a hard-partying Hollywood player has never been put onscreen quite like this before, with so much contemplation as to what it all means and what role he's playing. There's a very memorable scene in which Bale's apartment is robbed and he's held at gunpoint. One of the burglars asks why there isn't anything of value in his home, and Bale doesn't have an answer.

As always with Malick, I found myself lost in Knight of Cups in a beautiful way, and I was made a little less aware of the current time and space around me. There's no way in his pictures to really know where we are structurally in the story, and so our minds are free to wander and take in the beauty of each moment. We simply exist in the space of the movie, and that is a wonderful thing.

Midnight Special is really, really special. The films of Jeff Nichols take place in cheap roadside motels, gas stations, backwoods areas and on dark highways. The locations alone have more character than most other studio films out there. All of his films are about parental concern in some way or another, and about a kind of anxiety and longing at the heart of modern southern men.

Interestingly, both Mud (2013) and Midnight Special feature powerful late scenes that help unearth the themes of the film, followed immediately by a rousing shootout. These critical scenes – in Mud, the titular character giving our young protagonist advice on love, and in Midnight Special, a child comforting his parents about to lose him – have a beautiful romanticism to them. And then Nichols leaps immediately into the thick of an adventure. It’s exhilarating filmmaking.

I love how dark Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone allow some of these scenes to get – we actually feel like nighttime is upon us. And the darkness only helps conceal the mystery, along with the beautiful score from David Wingo, who also scored Mud, Take Shelter (2011) and the films of David Gordon Green.

Edgerton is silent and strong, providing a subtle, effective presence in each scene, while Shannon is riveting as a father willing to do anything for his son.

Midnight Special is an emotional story about parents protecting and eventually letting go of their child, and how others along the way are deeply affected by the child's vision. Nichols is so good at making movies that are about so much more than they seem, and they always sneak up on you and reveal themselves in profound ways. The combination of supernatural imagery with ordinary life is even more prevalent here than in Take Shelter, but Nichols uses special effects only when necessary, and only in the interest of enhancing the story.

With these last few films, Nichols has created a new American South that feels real and heartfelt. Here, he embraces his inner Spielberg and makes a film full of haunting images, quiet characters whose inner lives speak volumes, and an atmosphere that lingers long after the credits are finished.

In February, Joel and Ethan Coen released their latest masterpiece, Hail Caesar! Josh Brolin, in his third collaboration with the Coens, leads a hilarious ensemble cast, and the picture is a treat for anyone who loves classic cinema. The Coens have a great time paying homage to classic studio films from the 1950s. They're also two of the only major American filmmakers to deal seriously with religion in their films. Hail, Caesar!, which begins and ends with Eddie Mannix (Brolin) in confessional, is fascinating when you consider the minor sins for which he atones, as opposed to the things he doesn't confess. He doesn't give a second thought to anything slightly immoral that involves running Capitol Pictures more effectively, whereas smaller things, like having an occasional cigarette, weigh on him heavily. This is a dense film, and worth seeing multiple times. Every film from the Coens is like a puzzle, and as you're watching it, you know the pieces are going to add up to something brilliant, but part of the fun is trying to determine how seemingly throwaway scenes contribute to the overall picture.

If you want brilliantly-written, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang-style fun, run to see Shane Black's The Nice Guys, in which Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling make a hilarious pair of private eyes. This is precisely the kind of movie that deserves to be making loads of money - if only America wasn't so simultaneously force-fed and obsessed with superhero atrocities. Jodie Foster's Money Monster is also a great, tight thriller reminiscent of Sidney Lumet's work - and features a fantastic supporting performance from my friend and NYU peer Grant Rosenmeyer! He plays Tech Dave, who spends a great deal of time in the control room and later in a van with Julia Roberts.

A24 continues to release the most memorable films out there - The Lobster is amazingly inspired and strong, with an extraordinary performance by Colin Farrell. And earlier this year, The Witch unsettled me deeply. Talk about a production company on a winning streak - in the last year, they've released While We're Young, Ex Machina, Amy, The End of the Tour, Room and Green Room, in addition to the above titles. If I see their logo attached to a movie trailer, I'm seeing the movie without a doubt.

I was a little late to the game in seeing it (after it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), but Son of Saul by László Nemes is a work of art. In short, it's important to go out there and see the original films. So please go support The Nice Guys, Money Monster, The Lobster, A Bigger Splash, Weiner, Maggie's Plan, Elvis and Nixon, Miles Ahead, The Family Fang, Green Room and - if it's still playing near you - Everybody Wants Some!!

Earlier this February, I attended the first screening of the Blackhat Director's Cut at BAM, with Michael Mann, one of my favorite directors of all time, introducing the film. I was a fan of this movie when it first opened a year ago, and I love this restructured version even more.

In this cut, the romance between Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei's characters is much stronger, and the characters overall are more fully defined. You know you're watching the work of a master visual stylist when you can practically feel the locations while watching the picture, and Blackhat has no shortage of incredibly memorable set pieces.

The sheer urgency and immediacy of the shootouts are as gripping as anything in Mann's filmography. The hacking scenes are beautifully filmed and visualized, and Mann's hyper-digital aesthetic has rarely felt more appropriate and essential, given the subject material. It's hacker versus hacker at the end of this picture. The film feels like it takes place in two worlds - one made up of sprawling and confusing physical geography, the other an unknowable and far advanced world that leaves the physical one muddled in chaos. On a side note, I was thrilled to be quoted in an IndieWire story about the Blackhat screening.

In April, I saw the current revival of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, which was an incredible production. I hadn't seen the musical since the 1990s, when I went with my parents to a production at Austin's Paramount Theatre.

As for this year's Academy Awards, I thought the winners themselves were right on the money. The final three Oscars went to exactly the people who deserved them - they got it right. Let's finally say it - Academy Award Winner Leonardo DiCaprio. We all know it should have been Oscar #4, as he should have won for Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), but no matter. The Academy awarded a magnificent actor and a truly kind person (from the few times I met him on The Wolf of Wall Street), not to mention an extraordinary performance.

In fact, I made the t-shirt to the right two years ago in the spirit of a possible DiCaprio win for The Wolf of Wall Street. That didn't happen. But I brought it back this year, and it happened.

The Best Director win for Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Best Picture win for Spotlight are, again, precisely the choices I would have made - not just among the nominees, but for the entire year, period. I loved whatever it was Michael Keaton mouthed when Spotlight won - that's two Best Picture winners in a row for Keaton, baby (and you can bet he's coming back for more this year with his excellent-looking performance in The Founder). The awards were enough to start a hashtag like #OscarsSoRight.

I was a little sad about Sylvester Stallone's loss for Creed, though my two picks for Best Supporting Actor (Harvey Keitel for Youth and Keaton for Spotlight) weren't even nominated. But it's cool that, before Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg had never directed an Oscar-winning performance - and now, with Mark Rylance's brilliant performance in Bridge of Spies, he's directed two. I was hoping to see the Best Song Oscar go to Youth, the actual best song nominated, by an artist apparently not famous enough to perform (don't even get me started on the exclusion of Brian Wilson's song from Love & Mercy).

To be honest, I hadn't been so excited for the Oscars since The Departed (2007) won it all nine years ago, mainly because of the prospect of a DiCaprio win. And the other winners were largely excellent (Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight! Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for Spotlight! Brie Larson for Room! Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for The Big Short!). Still, the tone of the evening oftentimes left a bad taste in my mouth - there's a way to critique the politics of the entertainment industry without disrespecting the films and people who are nominated.

In the same vein, it's hard to find articles about the Oscars that actually discuss the films themselves anymore, but here's a great piece on how Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is a master class in the art of visual nuance. Also, here's former Boston Globe editor Marty Baron on the power of Spotlight and great journalism, and Carl Bernstein on his love for Spotlight.

It was a good awards season, for the most part, as well - with The Revenant becoming a worldwide hit, winning the major BAFTA awards and Alejandro González Iñárritu winning the DGA for the second year in a row - he could not be more deserving. Spotlight, meanwhile, won the WGA award. Here's a great Rolling Stone article on Iñárritu, which includes Scorsese's thoughts on The Revenant (he calls it a masterpiece).

There have been some tragic deaths since I last wrote here, including musical legends Glenn Frey, David Bowie and Prince; Gary Shandling, who gave us masterful comedy with The Larry Sanders Show; Kathryn Altman, who so lovingly kept her late husband Robert Altman's legacy alive and well, particularly with the magnificent book on his career; and brilliant author Harper Lee. I had the honor of briefly meeting Harper Lee ten years ago with my friend Bolton Eckert at Horton Foote's ninetieth birthday party - she was an extraordinary person, and her work and legacy will live on forever.