Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Two Hearts Are Better Than One

Since I last updated this blog (my end-of-year top ten films list notwithstanding), I started two new jobs in September of last year. I was hired as a website video editor at Comedy Central for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, which has been a tremendous joy and an opportunity to work in a large, corporate edit office on a major television show. In addition, I began working as an after-school filmmaking teacher with CinemaKidz, teaching two classes on Wednesdays at Brooklyn Friends School.

Last semester, I taught alongside another great instructor, Bryn - one class comprised of elementary schoolers, the other comprised of junior high students. I was struck by the knowledge and aptitude of the students with filmmaking technology - we primarily use iPads to shoot in-class films, and the various filmmaking apps include iMovie, Filmic Pro, Green Screen and Stop Motion Pro. Many of the students were already very familiar with these apps, and it was an absolute joy to get to work with them and help cultivate their voices as filmmakers. They were particularly enamored with the green screen, which we set up before class most weeks - although for their final class films, we recommended using real locations around Brooklyn Friends School instead of relying on the green screen.

In order to focus on editing my web-series Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue this spring, I am not teaching a weekday class during this current semester, but I continue to work CinemaKidz birthday parties on the weekends. The birthday parties often consist of four-hour shoots with a large green-screen set-up in a studio, in which the birthday party attendees shoot a music video or a short film in rapid-fire speed. It's invigorating and heartening to watch young people learn about collaboration and the art of filmmaking.

You can view my online staff profile and introduction video on CinemaKidz's website, or watch the link below.


Meet Jack @ CinemaKidz from CinemaKidz on Vimeo.

My job with Comedy Central has been an incredible experience. I work four nights per week (the air dates for The Daily Show), usually coming in at 6:00 PM and leaving at 2:00 AM. It's a rather ideal schedule, actually, as I'm able to edit Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue during the daytime before work. I primarily edit the website material for The Daily Show, along with some social media content and additional editing on other Comedy Central projects. The best part of the job is the lively camaraderie among the nighttime video editors - our edit room inside the Soho Viacom building is full of energy and ideas (and, often, food). It rarely feels like a late night when I'm working there, primarily because of everyone else in the room.

Because the show regularly has dark weeks (in which The Daily Show does not air), the breaks and holidays are generous (although you can work daytime shifts during the dark weeks, too, which I have done). There are certainly perks to working with a large company. When there was a major snowstorm early last month, I was put up at the Hotel Hugo in Soho overnight after my edit shift to ensure I wasn't traveling home on dangerous roads. There's also a hoverboard in our office, to my great delight - although I'm not sure I'm very good at it.

Watching The Daily Show every night is a lot of fun, too - here's one of my favorite pieces Trevor Noah has done from the last year. We have guests in the edit room sometimes - after her interview on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, newly elected Virginia Delegate Danica Roem visited our office - she made history with her win this past November as the first transgender person elected to a U.S. statehouse, and it was a joy to meet her.

In January, I had the opportunity to act in a Columbia University MFA film. Director Cooper Troxell found my acting reel on Columbia's casting website, and he cast me as a romantic lead, of all things, in his film Hidden Gems. The picture centers around an office party where I'm at the center of a love triangle. We shot for two days in an architecture studio in the Flatiron District, and I was mightily impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of these MFA students. I've been on too many NYU film sets to count, but this was my first experience on a Columbia set, and I had a great time. I love to act whenever I can, and here, I was teamed with a great filmmaker and a fun script (and an opportunity for some successful improvisation). I look forward to seeing the final film.

Speaking of acting, no less than a few weeks ago, my effervescent girlfriend Sophia and I wrote a short play called White Castle Valentine's Day 2018 on a whim. It takes place at a White Castle on Valentine's Day, which, let's face it, is exactly where we all want to spend that cherished day. Sophia submitted the rough draft to a few theaters in New York accepting play submissions, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre accepted the play as part of their New Works Short Play Event. In a rather fortuitous turn of events, we just performed the piece on Friday, February 16th and Saturday, February 17th at 6:30 PM - which was not only the week of Valentine's Day, but also fell on a dark week for The Daily Show. Just like that, in a matter of days, a new project emerged seemingly out of nowhere! Here's what Sophia and I wrote for the 'About' section of our play's program:

"When Sophia and Jack stumbled into a White Castle for a late-night soda less than a month ago, neither of them could imagine that they'd leave ten minutes later with a potential short play percolating in their minds. Written over the course of a single weekend and reflecting the whims and idiosyncrasies of both writers, White Castle Valentine's Day 2018 arrives near the one-year anniversary of Jack and Sophia's relationship. While this piece doesn't exactly reflect their love story in any real way, it's still a representation of their ideas and concerns, filled with generous helpings of bizarre humor and non-sequiturs. In the spirit of this holiday, you're invited to discover what it means to accept your romantic partner (flaws and all) in White Castle Valentine's Day 2018."

I directed the play, with my friend and fellow Red Dragon Player alumnus Zachary Gamble leading the cast as Vincent (a stand-in, more or less, for me). Two extremely talented actresses, Nadira Foster-Williams and Audrey Harris, play Trash Lord (a character more or less standing in for Sophia) and Gloria (an ornery White Castle cashier), respectively. Rounding out the cast is me - I played Gene, a homeless man who lives in the White Castle, who gets a nice soliloquy before falling dead mid-play. I was overjoyed by the opportunity to perform in a live theatrical piece again, and even more excited to direct theatre for the first time!

We held rehearsals the last few weeks in spaces at the University Settlement, where Sophia works. She also constructed simple but elegant set pieces, namely a bullet-proof glass window separating Gloria from the rest of White Castle. I'm used to the directorial duties when it comes to filmmaking, but I'm rather new at some of the theatrical demands - creating a lighting and sound cue list, making a master blocking document, and furnishing the set with props that can be easily placed and stricken within minutes (since we were part of a series of plays).

White Castle Valentine's Day 2018 is a mysterious, romantic riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Sophia's brother Jack made the poster, and I think it's pretty great (additional publicity images were made by Jasmin James). I encouraged everyone to come on by via our Facebook event, and I sincerely hope they were moved, exhilarated and surprised. Our wonderful guests included my roommate Bobb Barito; dear friend and fellow Red Dragon Player alumnus Cora Walters; my beloved high school English teacher Michael Blankenburg and his husband, Brandon Durham; fellow NYU alumnus Aaron Kodz; and Sophia's entire family. Backstage, I was able to do something I've always wanted to do - lead our cast in vocal warm-ups I learned from my Austin High theatre days.

In short, it was a glorious experience - the dress rehearsals, the thrill of performing live, the backstage camaraderie, the excellent after-party - it all came flooding back to me. And, of course, the opportunity to direct and act in a play I wrote with my incomparable girlfriend doesn't come along every day, and so this one meant a lot to me. Sophia and I really put our heart and souls into this piece, and I'm enormously proud of what we put together in a matter of weeks. Here was the link for tickets, which I expect will expire in the coming days as new shows move into Manhattan Rep.

But never fear! Ken Wolf, the Artistic Director of Manhattan Rep, recorded a video of both of our performances. You can see our second performance in its entirety in the video below.


White Castle Valentines Day, Performance #2 from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

One year ago on Valentine's Day, I had one of my first dates with the amazingly talented and stunning Sophia. I can't possibly express what a joy it is to have her in my life. I was beyond honored to have collaborated on this performance.

On December 29th, Sophia visited Austin for the first time, and stayed at my house for four nights over the New Years holiday. We had a packed and thrilling three days together - on our first night, we ate at The Tavern with my mom, and then travelled down South Lamar to check out Waterloo Records (where we both made some fine purchases) and Book People.

On Saturday the 30th, we went with my mom to the house of my wonderful uncle and aunt, John and Keni Neff, and then went to The County Line to have some of the best Austin barbecue out there. Sophia and I then took a trip down to the Hike and Bike Trail, where we visited Lou Neff Point, the beautiful overlook at Town Lake (or Lady Bird Lake) named after my grandmother (my mother's mother, Lou Neff). She, along with Lady Bird Johnson, started a beautification effort in Texas to plant wildflowers all along the Texas highways in the 1960s. Here's an Austin-American Statesman article with a picture of Lou Neff Point from decades ago.

That evening, Sophia, my mom and I had tickets to an early screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread in 70MM at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in downtown Austin. This was a perfect opportunity to not only see downtown, but to take in one of Austin's best cinemas (and see the newest work from one of our finest filmmakers on glorious celluloid). We were enraptured by the film - it's an astonishing study of two people in love, told mostly through glances and gestures, each of them trying to discern what the other is thinking. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps gave two of the best performances of last year. Anderson is such a treasure - and his taste, I might add, is so wide-ranging and unpretentious. Here is someone who clearly loves movies and doesn't play into the Film Twitter game of taking films down a peg.

After the film, we walked down Congress to the Roaring Fork and had a delicious post-movie meal. We then headed down toward the Texas State Capitol and roamed around outside the beautiful structure.

On New Year's Eve, Sophia and I had lunch at Kerbey Lane Cafe on the Drag, and then roamed around the University of Texas campus. We ended up inside the Harry Ransom Center, one of the great archives and museums in this country, and studied their display Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920-1945 (before inquiring about their copy of Paul Schrader's Dark, a re-cut of one of his films only available at the Ransom Center and at UCLA's film archives).

We then went out to South Congress for New Year's Eve, meeting up with Zach (who was also in town for the holiday) at Guero's Taco Bar, one of the great Mexican establishments in Austin (and also heavily featured in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof). After dinner, we headed across the street to The Continental Club, a historic Austin music venue, and saw live music by the Peterson Brothers, who were positively electric. It was a stirring way to ring in the new year - a year in which I met Sophia, made Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue, and got a few new jobs. We ended the night in the best possible way - by stopping by Magnolia Cafe and munching on late-night pie.

The next day, Sophia and I met up with Billy and Annie Dragoo, my high school theatre directors, who I consider part of my family. We looked around the Preas Theatre, the home of so many cherished memories, and then went out to lunch at Red's Porch on South Lamar. Sophia and the Dragoos clicked right off the bat, discussing their collective encyclopedic knowledge of plays and theatre. I was thrilled they had the chance to meet.

That evening, my mom, Sophia and I had a great dinner at P.F. Chang's, and then saw Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World at Westgate Cinemas. Later, back at home, we opened Christmas presents with my mom, and I was overwhelmed by my mom and Sophia's generosity. My mom gave me, in addition to numerous Blu-Rays and books, a record player for my room in Austin. I put on my favorite album, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones (another Christmas gift), and it was a joyous way to end the trip before we all went to sleep. And Sophia gave me the sweetest gift imaginable - a hand-crafted book charting our relationship and the many memories we've had together. I will cherish this forever.

Austin is changing - the toy store of my childhood, Over the Rainbow, along with the Arbor Cinema and Vulcan Video North, are all being consumed by rising property taxes. It's simply not Austin without these landmarks - we simply can't let this city become another anonymous metropolis. But at least Austin now has an In-N-Out Burger - God forbid we not have one of those. I have so many wonderful memories at the Arbor, as well as the Sunshine Cinema, which just closed in New York.

Speaking of the Sunshine, I said goodbye to perhaps my favorite theater in New York in January during its last week of operation. Sophia and I paid pilgrimage the weekend before the cinema closed by seeing Scott Cooper's extraordinary Hostiles, one of the most overlooked movies of the year, with an incredible Christian Bale. And then, the following weekend, we attended the last Saturday night at the Sunshine ever, joining a large groups of friends for a midnight screening of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Now, the space is closed to make way for a shopping mall.

I saw more than forty films at this wonderful theater over the last eight years, and I'm understandably so sad to see this place go. I vividly remember seeing Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (2011) there for the first time - it was the only cinema in the city, to my recollection, that even played the film during its limited run. Months later, the Sunshine held the premiere screening of the Director's Cut of Margaret. I couldn't go, as I was interning at Sikelia, but I remember Thelma Schoonmaker needed subway directions so she could be there. When I was walking home late that night on the Lower East Side (I lived on Broome Street at the time, my senior year of college), I passed by the Sunshine as folks must have been getting out of Margaret. I walked by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was unchaining his bike and about to head off into the night.

The first time I ever went to the Sunshine was for Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man (2009), which I saw on opening night with three friends from film school. This was less than a month into my first semester at NYU, and I could tell this cinema was a place I would return many times over the years. The staff threw out A Serious Man t-shirts to the audience before the film - luckily, I still have mine. Let's protect the small cinemas we still have left.

In early October, on my first dark week from Comedy Central (I had only been working for two weeks), I directed my second film of 2017, Four Play. I wrote a great deal about Four Play in my last post, but in short, it's my first film that I didn't write. Ben Krevalin, an actor and producer with whom I share mutual friends, hired me to direct his screenplay early in the summer, and the early October shoot was a great learning experience. Even when I thought I had fully considered every aspect of a scene, there was something I hadn't thought of - such is the nature of directing someone else's script. I had a chance to work with some amazingly talented actors (Justin Danforth, Lizzie Stewart, McLean Peterson and Ben), and collaborate with some friends with whom I love working on set, namely production designer Maddie Wall and script supervisor Lain Kienzie, both extremely talented artists.

During our three-day shoot, we packed in a lot of scenes, and in the months since wrapping the shoot, Ben and I have been in the edit room with our editor, Daniel Sorochkin, who has done a great job with the film. We just picture-locked this past weekend, and I'm very proud of the final movie. Once it's fully sound-designed, color-corrected and scored, we'll be sending it off into the film festival circuit.

Speaking of my films, I'm still chugging along with the edit of Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue. I've been moving slowly but consistently - although I know most people prefer to make a rough cut of the entire project early in the process, I prefer to work on each individual scene at a time pretty thoroughly, resulting in a 'first cut' that's hopefully a little more refined. I'm not terribly far from a full first cut, but considering Harvey's Last Night on the Avenue will be nearly double the length of Four Play, I think the amount of time spent in the edit room so far is well-justified.

In September and October, I saw three films at the New York Film Festival - starting with the incredible North American premiere of Nancy Buirski's The Rape of Recy Taylor. Sophia and I (as well as my friend Tommy Bernardi, who also provided voiceover work in the film) attended a pre-screening party for the film at Indie Cafe at Lincoln Center, before traveling across the street to the Walter Reade Theater to see the film on the big screen. It was a great experience, with a fantastic Q&A afterward with Nancy, Robert Corbitt (Recy Taylor's brother), Cynthia Erivo, Crystal Feimster and Danielle L. McGuire, moderated by Kent Jones. I will admit, however, that I was a bit taken out of the film when I heard my own voice - it was an odd sensation.

The Rape of Recy Taylor has received some wonderful attention in the last few months. The film was front and center of The New York Times' Holiday Movies section, listed as one of the must-see films of 2017. On Saturday, November 11th, Nancy was joined by Academy Award nominated actress Ruth Negga (Loving) for a screening of the film at the annual MoMA Contenders Series with a post-screening discussion. On Friday, December 8th, the film opened for an Oscar-qualifying run at Laemmle Monica Film Center, followed by a New York theatrical release on December 15th at the IFC Center. In late December, The New Yorker's Richard Brody listed the film as one of the best pictures of the year, alongside The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Phantom Thread and Logan Lucky.

Recy Taylor passed away in late December at the age of ninety-seven. During last month's Golden Globes broadcast, Oprah Winfrey spoke about Ms. Taylor, which I hope shed even more light on her story and on Nancy's brilliant film. I'm extremely proud to be associated with The Rape of Recy Taylor, and I highly encourage you to seek it out.

Later during the New York Film Festival, Sophia and I saw the Closing Night screening of Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel, which I thought was Allen's best film since Blue Jasmine (2013). It has some of the most imaginative staging and blocking in any of his movies, and Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is simply beautiful. Upon a second viewing in December, I was even more struck by Kate Winslet's performance and the strength of Wonder Wheel as a whole. But just remember, Woody - I shot at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park first (see below)!


On the last day of the festival, I was quite astonished while watching Dee Rees's Mudbound at the Walter Reade Theater. Not just by the film, which was beautiful, but by the audience, which was not. I have rarely seen as many cell phones or heard as much talking as I did at this screening. Not one, not two, but three different people in the row in front of me on their phones - and that was just one row. Was this at a multiplex, perhaps in Times Square? No. This was the Film Society of Lincoln Center, for crying out loud. The New York Film Festival. I know that no space is immune to this kind of behavior - look no further than Film Forum, which seems to thrive now on loud talkers - but I was surprised that nobody in the audience really seemed to care. Certainly not the narrator behind me. Is there not one employee who can monitor these screenings, particularly for films not yet released, and ask people to close their phones? I was dismayed. There are many good films coming out these days, but not nearly enough audiences that deserve them. At this point, this song echoes through my mind nearly every time I sit down in a cinema.

There were several great films that played the New York Film Festival that I ended up catching elsewhere, including Todd Haynes's Wonderstruck, an overwhelmingly beautiful film that was clearly too quiet, sophisticated and strange for the non-stop talkers at Village East Cinema on a Saturday afternoon. Special shout-out to the know-it-all dad who inundated his young son with useless comments the entire film. Here's my review of Wonderstruck for Austin Family Magazine (you can read all of my reviews at the website, if you'd like).

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) was one of my favorite films of last year, continuing Noah Baumbach's streak of magnificent achievements. The film features Dustin Hoffman's best performance in years, with an equally amazing Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller.

Thanks in large part to Sophia, I've seen quite a bit of theatre the last few months. Most recently, we experienced one of the best plays I've seen in a long time, Bruce Norris's The Low Road, at the Public Theater. In January, we saw Robert O'Hara's Mankind at Playwrights Horizons, which was a wild ride overflowing with ideas. The first act finish was a delight, as all men in the audience stood and performed a prayer from a pamphlet hand-out. Earlier in the fall, Sophia's dad took us to see 1984 on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre, starring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde, which was a horrifying and difficult-to-watch staging of George Orwell's novel. 

I was most moved by the revival of Torch Song, which was produced by Richie Jackson, a wonderful mentor and advisor to me through his fellowship. Written by Harvey Fierstein, directed by Moises Kaufman and starring Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl, the show closed on December 9th (I saw it during its final few days) at the Tony Kiser (no relation) Theater on 43rd Street. However, the play is opening on Broadway this fall, with previews starting in October. Torch Song was truly one of the most imaginatively staged and beautifully acted shows I've seen in some time.

Sophia has had no shortage of her own live performances in the last year. Her play Trash Lord: Domestication was performed in January at Sidewalk NYC, directed by Keith Paul Medelis of the Upstream Artists' Collective, and she also staged her performance art piece Body Fluids last fall at the University Settlement on Eldridge Street. This came after a whirlwind 2017, in which she held a packed staged reading of her play Please, Mrs. West in January at the University Settlement; directed and starred in a production of her original play Solo: An American Choreopoem at Dixon Place in April; and produced a film adaptation (which I assistant-directed) of Please, Mrs. West in July. 

In late October, we had a very fun Halloween. The night before, we went pumpkin-carving at Zach's apartment with some of his friends. As we didn't buy a pumpkin in advance of the party, we decided to temporarily "borrow" a pumpkin from a nearby bar (which had outside pumpkin decorations). We carved it impressively at Zach's apartment, and then we promptly returned the newly enlivened pumpkin to its rightful spot near the bar, with the message 'Do Not Judge Lest Ye Be Judged!' written onto its side. I like to think we didn't steal their pumpkin - we made it even better. We then travelled over to a party at another friend's apartment.

The next night, on Halloween, Sophia and I dressed up as our favorite movie couple - Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn. I had my aviator goggles and a piece of paper taped to my chest reading 'The Way of the Future,' while Sophia went full Hepburn in her costume choices. And then we headed off into the night, spending time at her friend's costume party in Harlem. All in all, it was a good way to honor The Aviator (2004), which I watched (with Sophia) for the one-hundredth time early last year. You know, watching The Aviator really puts things into perspective. For instance, there is no better movie than The Aviator.

I returned to Austin for Thanksgiving, and I had a grand Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Bolton Eckert and his family. My mom, Bolton's mom Leslie, his girlfriend Allie, grandmother Myr and other family members gathered at Leslie's house and had a great meal. Only a year prior, I had joined Bolton, Allie and the Eckert family for a celebration of the wonderful Horton Foote's centennial - but I'll write about that in a future post (where I'll go back to 2016 and fill in some gaps). Bolton had his new drone camera at Thanksgiving, so we played around with flying that thing around Austin and getting some really beautiful aerial footage. He's now started a production company in Los Angeles where he'll be a drone operator and videographer.

Over Thanksgiving, I also saw some of my favorite films of 2017, primarily at the Alamo Drafthouse. In case I wasn't clear enough in my praise last time around, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is likely my favorite American film since Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). I have been positively thrilled by the film's awards season reception this year - seven Oscar nominations in total, although Martin McDonagh's omission for Best Director is disappointing. Three Billboards won five awards at the BAFTAs, including Best Film, Actress (Frances McDormand), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell) and Original Screenplay. The film won the same four awards at the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild awarded the picture Best Ensemble, Actress and Supporting Actor. The film richly deserves each one of these accolades. I've been laughing a bit at the hit pieces on the film ever since it became a frontrunner this awards season - God forbid a movie not adhere strictly to the doctrine of political correctness and have a bit of a nuanced view on some complicated issues. Thankfully, there are plenty of good pieces defending the film, as well as year-end top ten lists with Three Billboards out front I can get behind (I also particularly enjoyed John Waters's top ten this year, where he included The Wizard of Lies, Wonder Wheel and Wonderstruck).

I also saw Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird while in Austin, which was so moving and true - particularly in its expression of only appreciating your hometown once you've moved away. It's a beautiful piece of personal filmmaking that deepens our understanding of Gerwig's brilliant work as an actress. Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) rounded out my Thanksgiving viewing - both of which deserved far more recognition this awards season.

The fall in general brought about quite a few excellent films - many of which didn't quite make my end-of-year top ten list. I'll write about a few of them here. I saw a killer Alamo Drafthouse double-feature in November of Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Sean Baker's The Florida Project - as always, A24 is giving us some damn fine work. For another Alamo double-feature, Sophia and I saw James Franco's The Disaster Artist, which is a blast - one of the funniest movies in years, ending with an almost The King of Comedy-style rise to fame. We followed it with Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, which is engaging and leisurely from start to finish. The film is a confidently directed and realized picture, with a supporting turn from the always fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg that sneaks up on you.

At our third-to-last date at the Sunshine Cinema before its closing (our first, by the way, was Jim Jarmusch's Paterson early last year), Sophia and I saw Brett Morgen's Jane, which has some of the most extraordinary, cinematic archival footage I've ever seen. The parallels between Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzee behavior and her own personal life is so well-done. The great thing about Darkest Hour is that Joe Wright's inventive and exhilarating filmmaking is every bit as good as Gary Oldman's towering lead performance. And in Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya, we get a haunting look at a life marred by abuse and scandal, with performances by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney that are among the best of the year. I, Tonya is a film that continues to linger with me, and may very well find its way into my 2017 top ten after some reconsideration. If you're looking for more writing about my favorite movies of the year (in addition to my below blog post), check out my end-of-year list for Austin Family Magazine.

In general, I've been pleased with the major awards this year (although we'll see what happens at the Academy Awards this weekend). In addition to the Three Billboards love, I was thrilled Paul Thomas Anderson and Phantom Thread received so much attention from the Academy. I was less thrilled that both Tom Hanks (The Post) and Hong Chau (Downsizing) were omitted. What does Hanks have to do to get nominated for an Oscar these days? Because apparently the answer isn't starring in five Best Picture nominees since his last nomination seventeen years ago and not being nominated for one of them. For the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, I wish Robert De Niro would have won for his incredible performance in Barry Levinson's The Wizard of Lies. In general, there has been far too little praise this entire season for Downsizing, The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Logan Lucky - all movies I feel certain are going to grow in esteem over the years (and are far superior to many of the nominated films).

In November, my hero Martin Scorsese turned seventy-five years old. He's currently shooting The Irishman, which is essentially my favorite film of all time in the making. There have been endless amounts of exciting updates on the film - Anna Paquin has joined the film, set photos have emerged and much more.

Here's a few assorted Scorsese links and news items, all bundled together: he wrote a great article last year about the danger of relying on Rotten Tomatoes and Cinemascore ratings when considering a film, using Darren Aronofsky's mother! as an example (by the way, congratulations to Paramount Pictures for making something as bold and audacious as mother!, which was brilliant and totally go-for-broke, and a great companion piece to Aronofsky's Noah). Here's another important (and slightly older, at this point) article, in which Scorsese and other great directors say we're getting ripped off at the cinema. Scorsese says, in particular, "... unfortunately, a few bad experiences in a movie theatre can lead to an audience ultimately deciding to stay home."

Last December 20th marked the 15-year anniversary of Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002). I remember opening day vividly - I was twelve years old, and it was my first Scorsese film in cinemas. My ticket cost $5.00, my friend Manny Munoz and I went with our moms, and as the lights went up, I felt as if I had just seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962) on opening weekend. I am still in awe.

On September 21st of 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the day Martin Scorsese Day. Want more? Here's a link to a history of Scorsese's love affair with The Rolling Stones. Here's a look at the future of the movies from 1990, the year I was born, where Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas discuss with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel where they see the movie industry headed. It's a fascinating watch. And for the 40th Anniversary of Taxi Driver (1976), here's Scorsese and his cast with an oral history of the film.

Lastly, boxer Jake La Motta, the subject of Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), died in September at ninety-five years old - what a life. May he rest in peace.

Speaking of those we've recently lost, I'm still mourning the loss of Tom Petty. In addition to being one of the greatest musical artists of our time, Petty also made the best music videos I've seen. In particular, Into the Great Wide Open and Don't Come Around Here No More are really astonishing. If I had to make a top five Petty, it'd be: Don't Come Around Here No More, Into the Great Wide Open, I Won't Back DownLearning to Fly and It'll All Work Out, with a bonus nod going to Handle with Care by the Traveling Wilburys. It's also worth mentioning how beautifully his music is used in the films of Cameron Crowe. We also lost one of the best actors around last year, Harry Dean Stanton, who appeared in so many great films.

Two of my all-time favorite directors passed away, as well. Curtis Hanson died in September of 2016. His films L.A. Confidential (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) are both among my favorite one-hundred movies of all time. He was a filmmaker who could seemingly work in any genre and make true art, as evidenced by films as diverse as 8 Mile (2002) and In Her Shoes (2005). And then, last year, Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) passed away at 77. What an extraordinary director - seeing The Deer Hunter (1978) for the first time as a child was eye-opening. Like Raging Bull, the film's power was beyond anything I had ever seen, and it remains one of my five favorite films of all time.

Last but not least, I wish to share with you what my friend Jon Annunziata, an ebullient taco of a human being, sent me in the mail in December. Arriving home after work, I found a top-secret package containing my long-lost copy of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, a Travis Bickle t-shirt and a letter too pure for this world (plus some Carlos Santana memorabilia for Bobb). I can only express my gratitude to Jon by quoting the Reverend Al Sharpton: "Who among us has not showered with the dishes? For you are nothing but a mafioso waiting to take my breath away, and I for one couldn't be more surprised."

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Best Films of 2017

More than ever, it’s vitally important to form your own taste. Film critics do an excellent job of highlighting and giving a spotlight to a select few films each year, and, in turn, those select few often manage to do very well. But meanwhile, a whole host of other movies remain overlooked.

What we consider the best films of a given year is so often informed by the tastemakers, and that leaves out the job of the individual moviegoer. I am often reminded of the cool reception given to Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) upon its first release. If you were to follow Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic at the time, the consensus was that Lonergan’s film was worth skipping. But I was deeply curious and wanted to see Margaret – and I was rewarded with a masterpiece (albeit, in a truncated version). In the years since, Margaret has been reevaluated as a modern classic, but it’s rare that a film gets such a deserved critical reassessment.

My point is, critical taste should never be the sole deciding factor as to whether to see something. We’ve been told for months now that The Shape of Water, Get Out, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name and The Florida Project are the best films of the year, and indeed, they really are among the best. But to pretend that seeing these five films means you have 2017 covered is wrong – just because the others don’t fit into the year-end narrative (whatever it may be) doesn’t make them any less valuable.

You must seek out films that look interesting to you, particularly in an age where we’re losing some of our best independent cinemas to real estate atrocities. The Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York have shut down, and now the Regal Arbor in Austin is apparently on the brink of closing. Are the only surviving art-house cinemas going to be boutique, hip hangouts? We need all kinds – not just the Drafthouses and Violet Crowns of the world that will invariably only show the four most acclaimed indies of the season.

On a separate note, there seems to be less and less good film writing – we’re engulfed by Buzzfeed-like articles taking films down a peg, or listing the top ten things such-and-such movie gets wrong about [insert hot topic here], in effect reducing a film to its most basic elements in the most reactionary way possible. There’s rarely any consideration given to a film’s formal qualities and what it might actually be trying to say.

With all that being said, I though this was an excellent year for cinema. Admittedly, I saw fewer movies in theaters than ever before, partly because I’m disheartened by the behavior of most audiences. The first time I saw The Post, people could not sit still during a movie about the power of newspapers without staring at their smart-phones and going out to loudly take calls. That kills me, because it means I’m more prone to miss out on personal discoveries (such as I mentioned above). But even so, I still wander into movies not really knowing what to expect (see Brigsby Bear or Jane) and come out feeling inspired. My top twenty in general is jam-packed with movies I simply adored; in fact, there’s three more – Wonderstruck, Mudbound and I, Tonya – that will likely join the list once I get a chance to view them again without audience distractions.

As always, there are spoilers aplenty below.

1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

Of all the movies released this year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the only one that seared images into my head. For me, this was the most consistently surprising and exciting film to watch in a very long time. Some years, it’s tough for me to pick among a handful of great films for my number one spot. This year, there was no contest. McDonagh has long been one of my favorite playwrights – I saw a production of The Pillowman at Austin’s Hyde Park Theatre in 2007 that blew me away – and I’ve greatly enjoyed his career as a filmmaker (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) thus far. But nothing prepared me for what he does here.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, in the best performance by any actor this year) is a single mother in small-town Ebbing, Missouri. Her daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered several months ago, and the local police haven’t done much to solve the case. In deep frustration and anger, Mildred has three billboards put up on the outskirts of town, calling out the police for their lackadaisical response.

Immediately, McDonagh complicates the situation. Although the individual policemen in Ebbing are buffoons at best and incompetent racists at worst, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is beloved in the community. He’s also dying of cancer – which immediately turns the town against Mildred and her pursuit for justice.

From the beginning, we see both sides of the billboards debate so beautifully. In Mildred, I saw a woman who has weathered hard times and isn’t interested in being bound by social niceties or political correctness – she’s uncouth and does what’s necessary in order to be heard and seen. We revel in seeing her take charge, kicking ass and calling people out for doing nothing. But who would expect the policemen to be given such depth beneath all of their buffoonery? McDonagh is too smart to make this simply a “police are the problem” movie – even though Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a bigoted, drunken officer who lives at home with his mother, is clearly not the model law enforcer. He, more so than Willoughby, is set up as Mildred’s primary antagonist.

As Mildred faces off against various townspeople opposed to her tactics, Willoughby takes his life by his own hands. He leaves a letter for his wife and children, in what has to be one of the most weirdly touching and complicated suicide scenes in cinema. He also leaves a note for Dixon, asking him to consider kindness and love, while also praising his skills as a potential detective (a humorous notion which is later given an interesting relevance). Even after his death, Harrelson’s character hangs over the entire movie – particularly in his letters, which set the tone of forgiveness and empathy with which McDormand and Rockwell eventually reckon.

Mildred is nothing if not persistent, and she angers many of the local residents by her bluntness and refusal to compromise – even, at one point, throwing a Molotov cocktail into the police station in the middle of the night (burning Dixon in the process). But there is a limit to how much the other characters will take of her relentlessness – as evidenced by her date with James (Peter Dinklage), a local man who holds unrequited feelings for Mildred. For all of his despicable actions, Charlie (John Hawkes), Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, is right – anger just begets greater anger. As the film approaches its end, Mildred doesn’t so much soften as realize she can be compassionate to those who are trying to help her.

After he’s stripped of his badge and burned badly during the station fire, Dixon undergoes a stunning transformation of his own. Two sequences, in particular, chart his journey from mindless aggression to possible redemption: in a long take, after learning of Willoughby’s death, a grieving Dixon bursts out of the police station, marches up the stairs of the across-the-street billboards store, and throws the kid who runs the store out the window (which in turn leads Dixon to losing his job). In the other, Dixon, now badly burned from the fire, sits drunkenly at a bar and overhears a man (Brendan Sexton III) who may very well be Angela’s killer bragging about an assault to his friend. Dixon has to decide how he’s going to deal with an important lead, and whether he has it in him to be the detective Willoughby predicts. At his lowest point, this character tries to do a good thing.

In addition to building a truly complex character, these two sequences are just thrilling cinema. Rockwell is so compelling and nuanced in this role, and he leads us on such an unexpected journey. Three Billboards is notable for giving some of our best character actors starring roles, and every one of them – McDormand, Rockwell, Harrelson, Hawkes, Dinklage – is at the top of their game. As a director, McDonagh proves himself to be a master of tone – this movie balances an uproarious sense of humor with a dramatic weight so effortlessly, all the while brimming with ideas and refusing to subscribe to one way of thinking.

There’s a lot of anger, both rational and irrational, in this world. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to suggest that both truly righteous anger (on the part of Mildred) and reactionary, deep-rooted hatred (on the part of Dixon) amount to very little in the face of an unknowable villain, and that issues as complicated as the ones presented here are rarely as simple and binary as they seem. McDonagh makes a bold move in not identifying the killer – it makes the prospect of revenge at the end seem all the more fruitless. At the bottom of all of it, through the venom-spewing hatred, cathartic revenge fantasies and an inability to empathize, we’re all just screw-ups trying to survive.

And because of our inability to catch the real monster – the unknown person who killed Mildred’s daughter – we will project onto and destroy each other until we’re left with nothing besides hate and, if we’re lucky, an opportunity to rebuild.

2.  Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is astonishing – a study of two people in love, told mostly through glances and gestures, each of them trying to discern what the other is thinking. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps give two of the best performances of the year, and Anderson once again proves he is the most exciting filmmaker working in cinema today. Seeing this film in 70MM at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse at an early screening was one of the great film experiences of my life, no less impactful than my repeat viewings of Anderson’s The Master (2012) in the same format.

Phantom Thread is supposedly Day-Lewis’s final performance as an actor, and if that’s the case, he is going out on a magnificent note. Anderson and Day-Lewis previously collaborated on There Will Be Blood (2007), which is rightfully considered one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century. Their new film finds them in a very different – but equally thrilling – mode, with Day-Lewis playing Reynolds Woodcock, an unmarried dressmaker working at the top of the fashion scene in 1950s London. Notoriously particular and obsessive, Reynolds seems to rotate through women in a cycle assisted by his sister and fashion partner Cyril (Lesley Manville). He puts all of himself into a dress – and a relationship – at a time, and then burns out, having to retreat into solitude. During one of his escapes from London, he meets Alma (Krieps), a younger Polish woman, who is more strong-willed and forceful than we first suspect.

In an early sequence in which Reynolds courts Alma for the first time (he has her try on dresses in his attic), there are so many emotions on Krieps’s face – particularly once Cyril enters the room, and a strange kind of routine breaks out, in which Alma seems to serve as both romantic prospect and model. Krieps goes from adoration to discomfort back to enthrallment so effortlessly. One of the many things I love about this film is that we don’t get much of Alma’s backstory – everything we need to know is conveyed through her face and the way in which she eventually takes charge of her new surroundings.

There’s a scene midway through the film in which Alma and Reynolds steal back a dress he designed for a high society woman. In the midst of this woman’s wedding, she gets increasingly drunk and proves herself unworthy of the dress. Alma and Reynolds storm into her hotel room and take it back, and then run out into the street, frolicking and laughing. It’s a gloriously mischievous scene of pure, giddy love, in which Alma truly enters Reynolds’s world. And, in turn, it’s what convinces Reynolds that he loves Alma. The scene calls to mind the sequence in Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) in which Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past plays over Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) running in the rain and falling into each other’s arms on a block in Los Angeles. There Will Be Blood aside, Anderson is a romantic at heart, as his last three films (yes, even The Master) fixate in one way or another on heartache and longing.

As this courtship goes on and Reynolds seemingly tires of the relationship, we find Alma isn’t going to let him go easily. Phantom Thread is partially a film about the way in which falling in love disrupts our daily routine and lifestyle. Alma convinces Cyril to have Reynolds’s staff of dressmakers vacate the house one evening so that she can prepare him dinner and enjoy his company alone. Reynolds sees this as an ambush, an attack on his way of life. But it’s clear that Alma is exactly what he needs. As my girlfriend Sophia eloquently stated, “As much as she needs to be needed, he needs to be weakened.” This proves especially true as the film goes on, leading to an ending as complicated as it is truly and oddly romantic.

There’s a tension the entire movie – aided by Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score – that made me suspect something horrible was going to happen at any given point. Part of this comes from the uncertainty and jitters that come with love – Reynolds and Alma are constantly finding the flaws in one another, especially once they’re married.  But part of what’s so moving about Phantom Thread is how Alma and Reynolds manage to stay together – like Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015), the film presents a romance seemingly doomed to fail that somehow endures. I cannot wait to see Phantom Thread again – more than any other director, Anderson’s films grow in complexity and meaning upon each new viewing.

3. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

The enormously talented writer and director James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) is the rare filmmaker who still makes movies for adults. His latest, The Lost City of Z, is a mesmerizing adventure that ranks among his best films. There are so many movies in The Lost City of Z – a tale of madness and obsession, a rollicking journey down the Amazon River, a World War I battle movie, an investigation of British exploration and imperialism – and all of them add up to a hugely entertaining picture unlike anything else in cinemas. You can see the influences on display here – the journey down the river of Apocalypse Now (1979); the candlelit interiors of Barry Lyndon (1975); the restless spirit (and one great match cut) of Lawrence of Arabia (1962); the relentlessness of There Will Be Blood (2007) – and yet The Lost City of Z is uniquely its own film, very much in the style of Gray’s previous work.

The movie tells the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British colonel who, shortly before World War I, is tasked by the Royal Geographic Society to travel into Bolivia and help map a border between that country and Brazil. During his journey, Fawcett finds evidence of what he believes to be a lost city in the jungle – and upon his return to England, he insists on returning to Amazonia to find the civilization.

His wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), slowly becomes as obsessed with the mythical city as Fawcett himself – by the end of the movie, she’s lost in her own jungle, as beautifully visualized by the film’s haunting final image. Watching the picture a second time, I was struck by her subtle transformation over the course of the movie into believing deeply in Fawcett’s mission. In a way, The Lost City of Z is as much Nina’s story as it is Fawcett’s.

Along the way, there’s a fascinating conflict between Fawcett and James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a fellow explorer who isn’t up to the grueling challenges of Fawcett’s second journey to South America, and ultimately endangers the lives of Fawcett’s men. It leads to a great scene late in the film in which Fawcett and Murray trade barbs at the Royal Geographic Society.

There’s an interesting dichotomy in Fawcett – he wants to rebel against the British empire’s treatment and estimation of indigenous people, and yet he adheres to his culture’s paternalistic mores when convenient at home, with his wife and children.

Gray’s film is a rich, classically made drama without a hint of irony. With The Immigrant and Two Lovers, Gray made his reputation as one of the great filmmakers of our time, and The Lost City of Z is an achievement of the highest order.

4. Downsizing (Alexander Payne)

With his new film Downsizing, Alexander Payne has attempted something beautifully ambitious – this high-concept, visual effects-heavy story about human miniaturization spends its first act getting obligatory sight gags out of the way, leading to something far richer and more interesting as it progresses. Payne takes a unique concept that many filmmakers would use for a comedic romp and finds the social implications inherent in the premise, offering so many unexpected wonders and ideas along the way. The director has always excelled at human dramas, and Downsizing is the most literally human of all of his works.

The film opens as Norwegian scientists announce a breakthrough in human miniaturization, a process in which people are made smaller (approximately five inches in height) and able to live in sustainable micro-villages. This allows for a significantly decreased carbon footprint – and a huge rise in the value of one’s personal savings.

Paul (Matt Damon) is a Midwestern physical therapist with no real direction in life. He’s married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and bogged down by financial insecurity. Early in the film, there’s a great shot of Damon sitting alone at his high school reunion, the camera closing in on him – Payne giving us a great sense of Paul’s adrift state of mind. When Paul and Audrey learn that their friends, Dave and Carol Johnson (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe) have “downsized” (the name given to the process), the couple decides to follow suit and shrink their lives for the better. They opt to settle in a luxury community called Leisureland, but complications ensue when Audrey decides to not go through with the miniaturization at the last minute – and Paul is left five inches tall and alone in a foreign, small world.

One of the great early ideas introduced in Downsizing is how a utopian vision can be perverted and used by wealthy people for their own purposes. Downsized communities, originally intended as environmentally conscious havens, simply become extensions of the real world, complete with class hierarchy and impoverished communities. So many of the regular staples of Payne’s Midwestern universe – Tony Roma’s, the Cheesecake Factory, etc. – are imported into the luxury villages in the downsizing universe. It’s funny, but it’s also kind of frightening.

In his first year in Leisureland, we experience Paul’s quiet solitude. Here, Downsizing begins taking its most radical turns. He moves into a bachelor-pad apartment, and befriends his hard-partying European neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz). One of Dusan’s house cleaners, Ngoc (Hong Chau), is a Vietnamese woman who was downsized and trapped in a cardboard television box with several other people, most of whom suffocated and died (Ngoc survived, but lost her leg in the process). Slowly but surely, Paul and Ngoc form a connection. He visits her project housing-like apartment building on the “other side” of Leisureland and tends to the physical ailments of Ngoc and her neighbors. Finally, it seems like Paul has a purpose.

During the film’s third act, an opportunity arises for Paul and Dusan to travel to the original downsizing colony by boat. In an unexpectedly moving and sincere monologue, Ngoc pleads to join them. It’s worth noting that Chau caught me completely off-guard with her performance here, creating a vivid character who is as much the center of this movie as Damon. On the boat, there is a surprise guest – Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), the scientist who created downsizing years ago. He’s forlorn, having learned that, due to climate change repercussions introduced early in the film, the world will soon experience an ice age and humanity will be wiped out. To prepare for the rapidly approaching end of days, he’s created an underground, self-sustaining community where the original downsizing colony will repopulate and keep the human race alive. There’s a beautiful, silent sequence in which the colony – along with Paul, Ngoc and Dusan – watch their final sunset together, in awe of the majesty of the earth.

If the above paragraph doesn’t indicate it already, Downsizing keeps introducing new ideas and then complicating them endlessly. From the beginning, it’s not as simple as “downsizing helps the environment” – in fact, most people downsize for selfish reasons. This ties into Paul wanting to join the colony at the end of the film – he think he’s doing it for a greater purpose, to help preserve the human race. But really, he’s only thinking of himself – as Ngoc tells him, the people who have to survive on earth until its bitter end are the ones who can use his help.

I truly had no idea where Downsizing was going, and I was surprised and delighted by every turn. The movie is full of so many Payne trademarks – including the undercutting of a dramatic situation with dark humor (Paul has a profound moment with Ngoc’s sick friend, who he comforts in her final days; in the next scene, Ngoc bluntly and rather hilariously reveals that the friend is dead – brilliantly demonstrating her character’s desensitization to death). Payne is also so gifted at finding the humor in the most emotional of moments; in The Descendants (2011), it was George Clooney running down the street in his flip-flops, the squeaking sound of his shoes undercutting the seriousness of his quest. In Downsizing, that moment comes when Paul says goodbye to Ngoc – but as he walks away toward the tunnel leading to the colony, we hear the squeak of his rolling suitcase, making sad noises as he wheels it up the ramp. 

Early in the film, we see Paul taking care of his dying mother, nearly ten years before he and Audrey are married. As he injects a shot into his mother’s leg, she watches the television, where there are reports of intense climate change (the same change that will later bring about the end of the world). His mother has a wonderful line in which she effectively says, “Who cares about the environment? I’m in pain.” In a way, that’s sort of the thesis of this movie. We’re really too late to do much about our situation, but we can try to help each other while we’re still here.

Damon is so good and believable in the role, guiding us through a wide spectrum of experiences and emotions. He’s one of the most underrated actors we have, someone who consistently takes on interesting projects and gives us everymen with a soul. Chau is magnificent, and in a just world, she would have received an Academy Award nomination for her work here. The Payne regulars – co-writer Jim Taylor, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and composer Rolfe Kent – do phenomenal work as always. Downsizing was for some reason deemed unhip by this year’s film community (and almost faulted for being too ambitious). The reception perplexes me, and I urge those of you who haven’t seen it to do so immediately. It’s a complicated, bold, ambitious and emotional movie, and I adored every second of it.

5. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach)

With The Squid and the Whale (2005), writer and director Noah Baumbach showcased his incredible ability to dramatize the inner lives of a broken family. It’s a raw and painful film, as are Baumbach’s two subsequent movies, Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010). But starting with Frances Ha (2013), there was a sudden shift in Baumbach’s work – the pain and messiness of life was still there, but the tone was somehow kinder, more forgiving. I love all of Baumbach’s work, but Frances Ha (along with 2015’s double-whammy of While We’re Young and Mistress America) shifted Baumbach – in my mind, at least – from a great talent to one of my absolute favorite filmmakers.

To call The Meyerowitz Stories (New Selected) his best work to date would be comparing the film against some of the above pictures I simply adore, but it certainly seems like the synthesis of so many of his themes and ideas. Like a cinematic cousin to Baumbach’s friend and sometimes-collaborator Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Meyerowitz Stories chronicles the trials and tragedies of a prominent New York family, and how the legacy of the patriarch, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), impacts his children and grandchildren. I was hooked five minutes into this film, when Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) and his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) play piano together, showcasing the creative spark inherent in this family. The music from this film has stayed in my mind – Randy Newman’s original songs (with lyrics by Sandler, Baumbach and Newman) are so memorable and moving.

The Meyerowitz Stories also has one of the more unique structures of any movie this year. For our first chapter, we experience the dynamic between Harold, a once renowned and now seemingly forgotten sculpture artist, and his older son, Danny; in the second chapter, we see his relationship with his younger son, Matthew (Ben Stiller). These sections are generous in length and rich with details – we learn so much about these characters by eating, laughing and lamenting with them. Then, nearly an hour into the film, we begin the major story movement, in which Harold goes into the hospital for a brain hemorrhage and his health takes a turn for the worse. I was particularly entertained by Baumbach’s portrayal of doctors, who seem to always be going on vacation and constantly rotating shifts to the point where there’s no consistency in the care Harold receives – something promised or theorized by one doctor is completely different the next day with an entirely new one.

The story stops soon after to reveal something important about Danny and Matthew’s sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and then begins again, leading to the emotional climax of the film. We’re then left with several poignant vignettes, in which we see the Meyerowitz clan adapting to life once Harold is released from the hospital.

There are so many wonderful Baumbach staples in this film – hilariously abrupt ends to scenes, characters talking over one another and not listening, and a few heartfelt monologues that seemingly come out of nowhere. Case in point – when Harold and Matthew visit Julia (Candice Bergen), Matthew’s mother, she surprises them with a sincere admission about her mistakes and her deep love for them. It hits you in the gut, but Harold and Matthew aren’t quite ready yet for that level of openness.

Later, at a retrospective showing of Harold’s work – which takes place while Harold is incapacitated in the hospital – both Danny and Matthew give unexpectedly moving speeches (Sandler and Stiller do some of the finest work of their careers in this scene). Matthew, having reached an agreement to sell Harold’s Manhattan apartment (and most of his art) without consulting Danny, chokes back sobs, while Danny recounts his painful upbringing and his conflicted relationship with Harold’s art.

Ironically, the son who was seemingly never part of his father’s artistic process or worthy of his attention (Danny) is the most attached to the endurance of his father’s legacy, while the prodigal, younger son (Matthew), who his father always included, is the pragmatic businessman ready to sell away his father’s work. This makes Stiller’s breakdown at Harold’s retrospective all the more touching.

The Meyerowitz Stories is deeply concerned with legacy and archiving, and how the children memorialize and view their father’s life work in different ways. In the end, it’s the grandchild, Eliza – someone who wasn’t there for the emotional trauma of growing up with Harold – who travels to the Whitney Museum and unearths a lost piece of art about which her grandfather often speaks. It’s her generation, in a sense, that will keep his work alive. The older generation is still recovering from the wounds of their upbringing.

By the end, both sons have come around. Doting Danny, who has always felt neglected and yet still takes care of Harold throughout his illness, finally stands up to his father and decides to live his own life. Meanwhile, the more absentee Matthew vows to be there more often for Harold. And, in the end, how Harold remembers his children’s upbringing – the stories he tells them throughout the film – may be misremembered, and the seemingly neglected son may have been his father’s muse and inspiration all along.

The Meyerowitz Stories suggests that growing up is far more complicated than a happy or unhappy experience. Preserving our parents’ legacies is even trickier – is the work even worth preserving? Is the art any good? As Sandler says in the film, they’ve been brainwashed to think it’s important.

The humor and the sadness comes through in such sharp and unexpected ways – just when you think you’ve understood all you can about Maureen (Emma Thompson), Harold’s current wife and Danny and Matthew’s rather ridiculous stepmother, she reveals a real, profound love for her husband. There’s a beautiful moment near the end in which Stiller repeats a joke Harold often makes throughout the film back to his father, only to find Harold doesn’t even remember it.

With The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Baumbach has given us a cinematic gift, and also provided some truly talented performers with their most challenging roles in years. It’s Hoffman’s best work since Stranger Than Fiction (2006), Sandler and Stiller are magnificent, and Marvel is a great surprise – she’s someone I can’t wait to see in more films. My only lamentation is that The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) wasn’t given a proper theatrical release, having been financed and distributed by Netflix. If that’s the only way a film like this can exist these days, then I’m of course thankful that Netflix stepped in and made it possible (along with this year’s Okja and Mudbound). But I much prefer the manner in which Amazon Studios is releasing their original films – giving viewers a choice as to where they view the movies. I’d like the option to see them in cinemas, and I’m far from the only person.

6. The Post (Steven Spielberg)

One of the great pleasures of the current stage of Steven Spielberg’s career is his commitment to making richly detailed historical dramas. I love Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as much as anyone, but with films like Schindler’s List (1993) and Munich (2005), Spielberg has taken an interest in exhilarating and morally complex recreations of history. His latest, The Post, feels like the third in a trilogy of Spielberg political dramas (after the masterful Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), and it’s no less exceptional than both of those movies.

Acting titans Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks star as Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor, respectively, of the Washington Post in the early 1970s. Richard Nixon is the President of the United States, and while Watergate is still on the horizon, there’s a different political scandal unfolding with the release of the Pentagon Papers. The Post concerns Graham and Bradlee’s efforts to release and report on information that the White House is trying to suppress.

There’s no question that Spielberg intends this film to be viewed through the lens of today’s political climate and the recent attacks on a free press by the President, but there’s something in The Post that feels timeless, too. Just as Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) was so good at conveying the specifics of its newsroom and how the Boston Globe’s reporting affected the relationships among its citizens, The Post is equally good at exploring the social consequences both Graham and Bradlee face in reporting this material. Graham contends with her status in Washington D.C. society, realizing she may lose friends – one of them Robert S. McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) – while Bradlee examines how his friendship with the late President Kennedy may have blinded him from printing anything critical of his administration. These relationships reminded me of Michael Keaton’s character in Spotlight losing old friends in order to investigate an important story. The Post is particularly adept at conveying the close-knit communities that exist in political spheres, and the ways in which the press and government officials operate in tandem with each other (and what happens when people like Graham and Bradlee break the status quo).

Needless to say, Streep and Hanks are two of the best actors around, and they’re both extraordinary here. I always find Streep the most effective and moving when she’s not playing a larger-than-life character (although nobody can do it like her), and she is so subtle and nuanced in this film. Hanks is a swinging dick, a force to be reckoned with – I wish I could carry myself around the way his character does throughout this picture. We’re truly taking Hanks for granted as an actor these days – he hasn’t been nominated for an Academy Award since Cast Away (2000), not even for Captain Phillips (2013), Bridge of Spies (2015), Sully (2016) or The Post. What does he have to do?

Spielberg is the master of non-flashy, insanely well staged one-takes, and that’s never been on such powerful display as in The Post. There’s a scene where several characters are on the phone together that’s more exciting than any action scene in a movie this year – this movie gains a stirring amount of momentum as characters move rapidly through newspaper offices, shuffle through papers in Bradlee’s house, and scurry to meet deadlines. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to run out of the theater and do something.

7. Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh’s welcome return to cinema, Logan Lucky, is one of the most delightful surprises of the year – the working class heist answer to Soderbergh’s own Ocean’s Eleven (2001) series. It’s as tightly constructed a picture as you would expect from the always economical and precise Soderbergh, but imbued with a looseness that makes watching the film such a pleasure.

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver star as West Virginia brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan, both of whom are decidedly unlucky (Jimmy, with a hurt leg, is let go from his job as a coal miner, and Clyde lost his arm serving a tour in Iraq). Together, they devise an intricate plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. To pull it off, they’ll need the help of their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) and particularly the assistance of explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is currently incarcerated.

Logan Lucky has its own energy, completely separate from the whiz-bang style of the Ocean’s Eleven movies. It moves at the same relaxed speed as its characters – all of them vivid and rich enough to deserve their own movies. The Logans and company are subdued and leisurely, even while planning a major heist, which made me feel oddly relaxed and at home – a feeling I haven’t really experienced in a crime film. The manner in which they pull off the robbery is reflective of the specifics of the region. Just as Soderbergh made Tampa, Florida an inseparable part of the milieu of Magic Mike (2012), he once again makes the West Virginia and North Carolina locales of Logan Lucky essential to this film’s story.

More than anything, this movie has soul. When Jimmy’s daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) starts singing an impromptu rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver at her talent show to honor her father, it’s a genuinely moving moment in which the film stops in its tracks and allows for something purely character-driven, almost unrelated to the robbery. It’s this kind of scene that elevates the film ever-so-slightly above the other great heist film from this summer, Baby Driver.

The film also has a third act that adds to its complexity. Most films would be satisfied to end right after the big climactic heist, but this one shows the characters adjusting to life after the heist (and, of course, provides some crucial details withheld from the audience during the actual robbery). It’s during this section that a lot of Logan Lucky’s structural brilliance becomes apparent – the set-ups and plants throughout the movie lead to richly rewarding payoffs.

The performances here are superb – it would have been so easy to play these characters as southern caricatures, but every one of them feels authentic and grounded. Craig, in particular, is fantastic as Joe Bang – hilarious, fascinating to watch, and nothing short of a truly original character. Soderbergh (and writer Rebecca Blunt) deserve enormous credit for one of the most entertaining, heartfelt movies to come out in 2017.

8. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 truly and profoundly surprised me. I had no doubt I would enjoy the film – Villeneuve is one of the strongest filmmakers working today – but I did not expect to find the picture as involving and engaging as I did. I greatly admire and respect Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982), but I wouldn’t count it among my all-time favorite films. Blade Runner 2049 exhilaratingly expands on the ideas in Scott’s film, and, in an opinion that may count as heresy in some circles, I found Villeneuve’s film to be an even deeper and more complex movie than the original.

From the very beginning, I was truly invested in this slow-burn detective story. Scott has called this sequel “way too long,” but to me, that’s an insult to a deliberately well-paced and meditative science-fiction epic that’s just about the most astounding movie of its kind since Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).

Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as K, an LAPD officer and relatively newer form of replicant (essentially a human-like form of artificial intelligence) learning to emote and feel, despite having memories that may very well be implants. In the world of Blade Runner, more advanced replicants such as K are hired to hunt down and ‘retire’ old replicants, which were created by the now-defunct Tyrell Corporation.

Harrison Ford returns as former blade runner Rick Deckard – the actor once again revisiting one of his iconic screen characters and giving the role an added complexity (not to mention a rather wistful quality), just as he did in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). K tracks down Deckard late in the picture, as Deckard may know the answer to the film’s central mystery (which concerns the possibilities of replicant offspring).

The film is updated from the original Blade Runner to address ideas that only surfaced in recent decades. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Tyrell Corporation hard drives that are wiped clean during a blackout, thereby erasing years of memories. There is just so much material in this movie, and yet Villeneuve gives us so much room to reflect and soak in the atmosphere. Blade Runner 2049 is filled with long scenes that go to their natural conclusions – take the opening sequence, in which K tracks down an old replicant (Dave Bautista) on his farm and the two engage in a quiet, thoughtful conversation before the inevitable confrontation commences. Villeneuve knows how to use silence, a valuable tool that compliments Roger Deakins’s jaw-dropping cinematography (if there was ever an opportunity to give Deakins an Oscar, this is it).

The most touching relationship is between K and his hologram “girlfriend,” Joi (Ana de Armas), who is programmed to love K and attend to his needs – but struggles with the concept that she isn’t real. When we first meet Joi, we assume K is talking to a human, leading to a great reveal. And in perhaps the best scene in the movie, Joi hires a prostitute, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), to merge bodies with her so that she and K can have a physical relationship. The scene calls to mind something similar from Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), but this has a unique feeling all its own. It’s another scene that requires silence, space and reflection, and the fact that we get all three in a major Hollywood film is a rare treat.

Villeneuve ends the film with a typically brilliant final image (Prisoners and Enemy are the best early examples of the director closing on a memorable frame), and we get some astounding moments of Villeneuve and Deakins shooting action through glass (a whole video essay dedicated to these shots, Denis Villeneuve Through Glass, played before the screening at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse). All in all, Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning achievement – and, along with this year’s Dunkirk and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, proof that big-budget filmmakers can still take chances and, more importantly, engage the viewer with thought and feeling.

9. Hostiles (Scott Cooper)

Hostiles is a grim, contemplative western that takes place largely around campfires late at night, where quiet conversations between beaten-down frontiersmen and Native American tribal leaders reveal a shared trauma that goes beyond words. It’s the rare western in which there are few battles or action scenes, and the shootouts that do occur are messy and ugly. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) is far more interested in the effect the battle for the American West has had on the people who have endured the fight – the Native Americans, the American soldiers and the frontierswomen who have seen unspeakable violence. Nobody in this film is innocent.

Christian Bale, who at this point seems incapable of delivering anything less than a transformative and spellbinding performance, stars as Captain Joseph Blocker, an American cavalryman in 1892 New Mexico who has seen the horrors of warfare. He’s well known for his violence against Native Americans, and yet he’s tasked with escorting a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his native land. Although Blocker at first appears to be a cutthroat racist, there’s a sense that he isn’t as bound by racial hatred as he is by loyalty among his men and what they’ve seen together – Bale is at his most emotional and vulnerable when standing alongside a dying comrade.

We’re given such a rich and diverse set of characters and experiences in this film. Rosamund Pike plays Rosalie Quaid, a frontierswoman who watches her husband and children murdered by Native Americans in the first scene of the picture. She shares a hatred of the natives with Blocker (there’s a great scene where they’re seated at a dinner table with a slightly more progressive couple, and they share looks as the oppression of natives is discussed), and yet they both grow and evolve as characters in interesting and unexpected ways. I was struck by what a strong role Pike has in this movie – it’s an unusually (and welcomingly) active role for a woman in a western.

Ben Foster is memorable as a sergeant who is sentenced to hang for butchering a family. He used to ride under Blocker’s command, and as Blocker escorts him to his execution, the sergeant asks his former commander how Blocker’s brutal actions against the natives – the atrocities they committed together – are any worse than the crime for which he’s now going to die.

As the film closes, Blocker’s actions cause even more death and pain. There’s a lengthy shot after the final shootout where the camera closes in on Bale, as he looks around at the death and chaos surrounding him. Even when he tries to do a good thing, violence and destruction are inevitable.

Hostiles is one of the weariest westerns I’ve ever seen. I’ll turn to my girlfriend again here, who eloquently points out that victimhood is not a niche – everybody in this film has been beaten down and destroyed by this long battle, and they’ve all internalized the trauma in different ways.

I saw this film two weekends ago at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, where I’ve viewed well over forty films across the last eight and a half years. It was perhaps my favorite theater in New York, and now it’s gone forever. I went back with a group of friends this past weekend to celebrate (or, rather, lament) its closing with a midnight screening of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). But Hostiles serves as the last first-run feature I saw there. The Sunshine was such an intimate space, and watching Hostiles, I was reminded of the kind of movie that will struggle to find a home now that this theater and others (Lincoln Plaza Cinema, for one) are gone. The world is changing, all right, but not always for the better.

10. Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater, the king of hang-out movies, strikes gold again with Last Flag Flying, a leisurely and reflective road trip movie for the ages. Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne star as three Vietnam veterans travelling up the east coast in 2003 to bury Carell’s son, who died in the Iraq War. The Army wants to give the boy a military funeral, but Carell insists that he escort the body back to his hometown and bury him as a civilian. He’s righteously angry about the murky reasons for the United States invading Iraq, and bristles at the notion of the army treating his son’s death as “heroic.”

My interest in Last Flag Flying stems not simply from my love and adoration for my hometown hero Linklater, but also from my love of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan (who also co-wrote this film with Linklater), with Last Flag Flying serving as a somewhat-sequel to The Last Detail. In the first film, the older rebel-rousers (Nicholson and Young) are tasked to bring a young man (Quaid) to military prison, and as they travel together up the east coast, the two elder officers try to show the young man a good time. In Last Flag Flying, these men have all grown up, in a sense, but they’re just as adrift in their middle age.

More than anything, it’s just a pleasure to hang out with these three guys – each actor gives us such a rich, nuanced performance. Carell’s character is so quiet and forlorn that when he does show remnants of his old self, it’s a joyous surprise. Fishburne’s character, a former hothead turned devout reverend, is able to beautifully articulate his belief in God late in the film, his faith no longer a source of humor (as it has been up to that point).

Cranston’s most powerful moment comes when the three men decide to visit the mother (Cicely Tyson) of one of their deceased Vietnam comrades, as they feel responsible for his death. At the time, the army insisted on telling the mother her son died a heroic death, when in fact it was a sloppy, drunken affair. Our men want to tell her the truth and admit their culpability in his death. But when it comes time to tell a fragile old woman what really happened, Cranston makes a concerted decision to not go through with the plan. It’s his point of maturation – the collective guilt of these men is something with which they must individually reckon, and it’s not to be saddled onto a still-grieving mother holding onto the supposed heroism of her son.

There was a sad and wistful quality to The Last Detail even as its characters exuded youthful rebellion; it’s in this film, too, but there’s also laughter and an opportunity for these guys to let loose. When their train stops in New York City for a few hours, Cranston convinces Carell and Fishburne to venture into the city with him and buy cellular phones. The fun these men have calling each other on their new phones as they stumble down the street is the kind of scene you’ll only find in a Linklater movie.

And in the end, it turns out that both Carell and the army had the best interests of his son in mind – he wanted a burial at home in New Hampshire, but still dressed in his military uniform. Linklater ends the film with Levon Helm’s Wide River to Cross and Bob Dylan’s Not Dark Yet, perfect closing songs that evoke a lifetime of regret and sorrow. Linklater is coming off a streak of great films – Bernie (2012), Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) – and he moves into new territory here. The result is one of the year’s undiscovered treasures.

Special Note: I will be posting reviews in the near future of the first five runners-up, all of which are deserving of inclusion on a top ten list.

The Rest of the Best

11. I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie) 
12. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
13. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
14. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
15. Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen)
16. Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
17. Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)
18. Good Time (Joshua and Benny Safdie)
19. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
20. Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary)
21. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
22. The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
23. The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
24. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
25. Jane (Brett Morgen)
26. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
27. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
28. Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
29. Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer)
30. Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)

Other Movies I Loved and Admired:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper)
Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
Logan (James Mangold)
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
Okja (Bong Joon-ho)
The Promise (Terry George)
The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour)

Best Director

Winner: Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Runners-Up: Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread; James Gray, The Lost City of Z; Alexander Payne, Downsizing; Steven Spielberg, The Post; Noah Baumbach, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk; Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049

Best Actor

Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

Runners-Up: Tom Hanks, The Post; Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour; Christian Bale, Hostiles; James Franco, The Disaster Artist; Matt Damon, Downsizing; Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Robert Pattinson, Good Time; Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name; Adam Sandler, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Note: One of the best male performances of the year was in a made-for-television film, Barry Levinson’s The Wizard of Lies, with Robert De Niro at the peak of his powers as Bernie Madoff.

Best Actress

Winner: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Runners-Up: Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread; Meryl Streep, The Post; Margot Robbie, I, Tonya; Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird; Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel; Rooney Mara, Song to Song and A Ghost Story; Rosamund Pike, Hostiles; Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water; Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Runners-Up: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project; Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Dustin Hoffman, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Daniel Craig, Logan LuckyLaurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying; Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name; Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lady Bird

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Hong Chau, Downsizing

Runners-Up: Allison Janney, I, Tonya; Lesley Manville, Phantom ThreadSienna Miller, The Lost City of Z; Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049; Elizabeth Marvel, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird; Holly Hunter, The Big Sick

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Runners-Up: Phantom Thread; Downsizing; The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); The Post; Logan Lucky; I, TonyaLady Bird; Wonder Wheel; Get Out

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Lost City of Z


Runners-Up: Last Flag Flying; Call Me By Your Name; Blade Runner 2049; The Disaster Artist