Thursday, January 28, 2010

Don't Ever Tell Anybody Anything. If You Do, You Start Missing Everybody.

And so begins the second semester of my freshman year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Looking back on the fall semester, I really could not have asked for a better start to my college education. In November, my original play The Certifiable was produced and staged by Tisch New Theatre. Later that month, I placed second in the annual Third North Ultra Violet Live (UVL) talent competition, performing contrasting monologues from Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge and Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business. I was also selected to join a small NYU improvisation/ sketch comedy group called The Spork in the Road, which creates comedic scenes and short films for the public.

But more than anything, I am most proud of the work I accomplished in my classes. In my Storytelling Strategies screenwriting class, Tisch professors Michael Stern and Ezra Sacks (writer of 1980's A Small Circle of Friends and 1986's Wildcats) guided me to completing the first twenty pages of a feature script that I have been preparing for some time. In my Performance Strategies acting and directing course, acting professors Keith L. Davis (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Law and Order) and Peggy Gormley (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Squid and the Whale, Bad Lieutenant) observed as I directed fellow students in a short scene, while also performing in other short scenes for directors.

Most excitingly, I directed professional voice actors for the radio drama production of My Jackie. The script, which I originally wrote during my stay at the University of Southern California at their four-week Summer Screenwriting Seminar in 2008, was chosen by my Sound Image class to be produced as a Radio Drama. My good friends Morgan Block, Andrew Griego and Shaun Kim served as the Producer, Head Editor and Foley Technician on the project, respectively, while I directed the voice actors in the recording booth and revised my script accordingly. My entire group is incredibly proud of the final product, which I will post on this blog as soon as I discover the proper way to embed an audio file. Our wonderful professor, sound guru Florence Barrau-Adams, was very impressed, as well.

After a very relaxing holiday break in Austin, I returned last week and immediately launched into my new classes, all of which are extraordinary. First and foremost, my Frame and Sequence class (which serves as a complement class to last semester's Sound Image) mandates that I take endless amounts of still photography shots around New York City, which has proved to be great fun for my friends and me on the weekends. I have several other fascinating classes, including a Introduction to Psychology course taught by Professor Edgar Coons, who is a major celebrity in the science world for investigating hypothalamic stimulation in rats at Yale University in the 1960s, and a film criticism and studies class called The Language of Film, taught by brilliant Tisch professor Rick Litvin.

As a Cohen Scholarship recipient, this past Tuesday evening I had the privilege of joining Tisch School of the Arts Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell, along with eleven other scholarship recipients, to a free performance of the new play written by David Mamet, Race, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. I was extremely honored to receive this invitation, as Mamet is quite possibly my favorite living American playwright, and the opportunity to spend the evening with Dean Campbell - a major voice in the film and theatre communities - was a dream come true. Race is a fascinating entry in the Mamet canon, with stars James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington and Richard Thomas in top form. After the play, Dean Campbell took the scholarship recipients to the front of the stage to have a discussion with two of the play's stars, Kerry Washington and David Alan Grier. Both actors had extraordinary things to say about working with Mamet, who also directed the production, and their own personal acting process. This was truly a memorable evening of theatre and a fantastic way to spend time with my peers, esteemed Tisch professors and two acting giants.

Last Friday evening, my good friends Morgan Block, Bobb Barito and I ventured to the historic Film Forum theatre to catch a screening of Michael Haneke's haunting and brilliant The White Ribbon. I had already seen the film once over the winter break in Austin, with my friend and fellow film buff David Walter, and I knew I needed to watch the picture again to absorb its disturbing resonance. The story of a small German village spiraling into chaos a few months before the outbreak of World War I, The White Ribbon is a beautiful black-and-white ode to the finest work of Ingmar Bergman, and deserves every Best Foreign Film accolade it has received thus far this awards season. After watching the film again, I immediately updated my Top Ten Films of 2009 list. Haneke's film continues to haunt me - it is undoubtedly one of 2009's best movies.

On Sunday afternoon, I volunteered to play one of the lead characters in a reading of a new play by Gallatin playwright Lucia Diaz-French called "The Danderforth Phenomenon." The play reading was hosted by playwright, screenwriter and Tisch Professor Selma Thompson in her apartment, which is just across the hall from my dorm room. The play is a beautiful new work about two siblings caught in the destructive aftermath of their parents' deaths. The reading was an incredible two-hour experience, allowing the other readers and me the opportunity to stretch our acting muscles, and simultaneously Ms. Diaz-French the opportunity to hear her work performed aloud by strangers, as she is still workshopping the play. The performance was followed with a Q&A with the playwright, and I was extremely grateful for the chance to interpret and perform her work, made possible by my always-hospitable neighbor Professor Thompson.

Beginning next week, I will start volunteering at the Tisch Talent Guild on Fridays in the mornings and afternoons. The TTG is the calling center for both cast and crew members for NYU student film productions, and it should be a great environment to meet aspiring filmmakers and other students.

I should mention that I am truly lucky to have such a terrific and supportive group of friends at NYU. Morgan Block, Bobb Barito, Jeremy Keller, Mike Cheslik, Jonah Greenstein, Alex Fofonoff, Jennifer Kim, John Anunziata - just to name a few - are some of the finest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Morgan, for her genuine kindness and being one of the most understanding friends I've ever had; Bobb, for his dry and seemingly effortless sense of humor (alongside the fact that he's just a damn good guy); Jeremy, for not murdering me after I voiced complaints aboutAvatar and excluded the film from my 100 Best Movies of the Decade list...I could go on. But these are truly extraordinary and talented people. And I am lucky to spend time with them and learn from them, even if we are just cooking smores on a Saturday night while watching the Screen Actor's Guild awards.

Speaking of the SAG awards, last weekend's major awards ceremonies - the Producer's Guild of America and the SAGs - were a breath of fresh cinematic air after the previous week's Golden Globe awards, an appalling celebration of mediocrity. After watching the Globes, I angrily wrote that "it's a sad day when great films like Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker and (500) Days of Summer lose to the likes of James Cameron and The Hangover." Thankfully, the SAG award for Best Ensemble was handed to Inglourious Basterds last Saturday night, and on Sunday the PGA honored The Hurt Locker as 2009's Best Picture. Hopefully, the Academy Awards will lean more in that direction - I don't think I'll be able to not throw something at the television if James Cameron were to defeat Kathryn Bigelow for the Best Director Oscar. (My other hope? Give the Best Actress Oscar to Meryl Streep for Julia and Julia or Carey Mulligan for An Education - I am simply dumbfounded that Sandra Bullock has won what she has for The Blind Side).

Today - January 28th, 2010 - has been a particularly sad day in the art community. First and most importantly, legendary author J.D. Salinger died today at the age of ninety-one. Salinger is best known as the author of The Catcher in the Rye, one of my favorite books of all time. Famously reclusive, Salinger has long held tight to his belief that Catcher should not be adapted for the screen - even director Steven Spielberg was unable to secure the rights. It was exactly two years ago that a friend and I wrote a letter to Salinger, explaining to him (in thorough detail) why we were the people who should adapt Catcher from page to screen. In the letter, we noted that if the adaptation was written and directed by people around the same age as the novel's protagonist, Holden Caulfield - we were seventeen at the time, just about the right age - then the production would avoid the Hollywood 'phoniness' that might otherwise come with an adaptation of Catcher.

Of course, he didn't respond - in fact, the letter probably didn't even reach the right address, as Salinger likely had his real address hidden from the public - but at least I can say I made an effort to adapt and honor the single most influential piece of literature I've ever read. In fact, everything I've written in the past two years owes something substantial to The Catcher and the Rye, sometimes very explicitly (in my original play, The Certifiable, the lead character is a modern-day version of Holden Caulfield, and the book itself is discussed in great length by many of the characters in my play).

In retrospect, however, I think Salinger made the correct decision by refusing to let The Catcher in the Rye become a mainstream film, or a film at all. Some books are cinematic by nature. Others aren't. One reason why The Catcher in the Rye is such an effective novel is that there's nothing else like it - there are pale imitations, sure, but nothing comes close to the brilliance of what Salinger did with that novel. And I think that's what a Catcher film adaptation would be - a pale imitation of something far greater and far more meaningful. Let the book simply remain as the book. I don't see how a film adaptation could expand on any of Salinger's ideas or offer anything more powerful than what the book already contains.

Salinger was a genius, and it's a testament to the power of his writing that The Catcher in the Rye is as popular and widely read today as when it was first published. I hope this very talented, influential and personal hero of mine rests peacefully in the afterlife. Thank you, Mr. Salinger.

The second piece of sad news today was the announcement that Miramax Films, which has been responsible for much of the independent film movement for twenty years, is being closed by Disney. Films released under Miramax include the incredible Pulp Fiction (1994; Quentin Tarantino), Gangs of New York (2002; Martin Scorsese), The English Patient (1996; Anthony Minghella), The Aviator (2004; Martin Scorsese), My Left Foot (1989; Jim Sheridan), Sling Blade (1996; Billy Bob Thornton) and The Piano (1993; Jane Campion). It's true that ever since the Weinstein brothers left Miramax, the studio hasn't exactly been the center of great filmmaking, but even still, it's closing today marks another blow to the great world of independent filmmaking.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Top 100 Movies of the Decade

I’ve seen many movies in the past decade – an almost embarrassing number, actually – and now, at the end of the decade, I have compiled what I believe are the 100 best movies, in preferential order. Of course, the rankings are fairly trivial – I can’t really argue that #36 is superior to #37 – but the list gives you an idea, anyway, of the movies that resonate with me, the ones that have made an impact on my life.

This is my list. Some people may laugh at some of the choices, but no matter – I believe in the greatness of these films and, in one way or another, each of the movies on the list has changed me. Inevitably, this list will change in the years to come, as I will certainly come to appreciate some films in a different way, and my opinions of others will fall.

But for today, at the very least, here are the 100 best movies of the decade, 2000-2009. By Jack Kyser.

1. The Departed (2006; Martin Scorsese)

2. Mystic River (2003; Clint Eastwood)

3. No Country for Old Men (2007; Joel and Ethan Coen)

4. The Aviator (2004; Martin Scorsese)

5. Lost in Translation (2003; Sofia Coppola)

6. Gangs of New York (2002; Martin Scorsese)

7. There Will Be Blood (2007; Paul Thomas Anderson)

8. Minority Report (2002; Steven Spielberg)

9. Brokeback Mountain (2005; Ang Lee)

10. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001; Wes Anderson)

11. Adaptation (2002; Spike Jonze)

12. About Schmidt (2002; Alexander Payne)

13. Zodiac (2007; David Fincher)

14. Munich (2005; Steven Spielberg)

15. Almost Famous (2000; Cameron Crowe)

16. Wonder Boys (2000; Curtis Hanson)

17. Into the Wild (2007; Sean Penn)

18. I’m Not There (2007; Todd Haynes)

19. The Wrestler (2008; Darren Aronofsky)

20. A Serious Man (2009; Joel and Ethan Coen)

21. Million Dollar Baby (2004; Clint Eastwood)

22. Sideways (2004; Alexander Payne)

23. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004; Michel Gondry)

24. Inglourious Basterds (2009; Quentin Tarantino)

25. 21 Grams (2003; Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu)

26. Milk (2008; Gus Van Sant)

27. Memento (2001; Christopher Nolan)

28. City of God (2002; Fernando Meirelles)

29. The Dark Knight (2008; Christopher Nolan)

30. Children of Men (2006; Alfonso Cuaron)

31. Up in the Air (2009; Jason Reitman)

32. Collateral (2004; Michael Mann)

33. Mulholland Drive (2001; David Lynch)

34. Slumdog Millionaire (2008; Danny Boyle)

35. 25th Hour (2002; Spike Lee)

36. Michael Clayton (2007; Tony Gilroy)

37. Capote (2005; Bennett Miller)

38. Syriana (2005; Stephen Gaghan)

39. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006; Clint Eastwood)

40. Babel (2006; Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu)

41. Synecdoche, New York (2008; Charlie Kaufman)

42. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007; Andrew Dominik)

43. The Good Shepherd (2006; Robert De Niro)

44. Black Hawk Down (2001; Ridley Scott)

45. American Splendor (2003; Robert and Sheri Springer Bergman)

46. Crazy Heart (2009; Scott Cooper)

47. Revolutionary Road (2008; Sam Mendes)

48. The Hurt Locker (2009; Kathryn Bigelow)

49. Road to Perdition (2002; Sam Mendes)

50. House of Sand and Fog (2003; Vadim Perelman)

51. Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 (2003 and 2004; Quentin Tarantino)

52. Traffic (2000; Steven Soderbergh)

53. Shattered Glass (2003; Billy Ray)

54. Far From Heaven (2002; Todd Haynes)

55. Little Children (2006; Todd Field)

56. United 93 (2006; Paul Greengrass)

57. Before Sunset (2004; Richard Linklater)

58. Match Point (2005; Woody Allen)

59. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007; Sidney Lumet)

60. Monster (2003; Patty Jenkins)

61. The Quiet American (2002; Philip Noyce)

62. The Pianist (2002; Roman Polanski)

63. Matchstick Men (2003; Ridley Scott)

64. Little Miss Sunshine (2006; Jonathan Davis and Valerie Faris)

65. Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005; George Clooney)

66. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008; David Fincher)

67. Walk the Line (2005; James Mangold)

68. Rachel Getting Married (2008; Jonathan Demme)

69. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000; Joel and Ethan Coen)

70. Ghost World (2001; Terry Zwigoff)

71. The White Ribbon (2009; Michael Haneke)

72. Passing Strange: The Movie (2009; Spike Lee)

73. Gosford Park (2001; Robert Altman)

74. Precious (2009; Lee Daniels)

75. A Beautiful Mind (2001; Ron Howard)

76. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003; Peter Weir)

77. Punch Drunk Love (2002; Paul Thomas Anderson)

78. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006; Tommy Lee Jones)

79. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009; Wes Anderson)

80. Finding Neverland (2004; Marc Forster)

81. The Fog of War (2003; Errol Morris)

82. Hotel Rwanda (2004; Terry George)

83. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001; Joel and Ethan Coen)

84. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007; Julian Schnabel)

85. Frost/ Nixon (2008; Ron Howard)

86. Sin City (2005; Robert Rodriguez)

87. American Gangster (2007; Ridley Scott)

88. This is England (2007; Shane Meadows)

89. The Squid and the Whale (2005; Noah Baumbach)

90. The Pledge (2001; Sean Penn)

91. (500) Days of Summer (2009; Marc Webb)

92. Shine a Light (2008; Martin Scorsese)

93. A Single Man (2009; Tom Ford)

94. About a Boy (2002; Paul Weitz)

95. Public Enemies (2009; Michael Mann)

96. Insomnia (2002; Christopher Nolan)

97. Burn After Reading (2008; Joel and Ethan Coen)

98. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005; Shane Black)

99. The Last King of Scotland (2006; Kevin MacDonald)

100. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004; Wes Anderson)