Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Best Films of 2012

More than ever in my life, my movie ticket stubs tell my story. My experience as a human being is so deeply tied to my trips to the cinema that I’m able to relive the joy, pain, melancholy, heartbreak and richness of a life-changing semester simply by flipping through my stack of ticket stubs. Some of the films on this list are here because they affected me deeply; others are heightened by their association with a particular state of mind or feeling that came over me while watching them, or perhaps even those who were with me or weren’t with me for a particular film. There is no such thing as an objective movie-going experience – your inner pain, sorrow and love are reflected back when you go to the movies. Sometimes it’s the person sitting next to you. Sometimes it’s the fact that you’re alone, and the cinema is able to wash over you, like a dream. Like life, the cinema is something you experience alone, in your head, and whether you share the space with a packed audience or an empty house, it’s a personal journey that comes as close as anything else I’ve experienced to illuminating who we are.

Sometimes, it's impossible to explain an experience to someone else without associating it with the movie involved. I will always remember Cloud Atlas a certain way because of how I saw it, and that film will never mean the same thing to me. Nor will The Sessions ever mean as much to me as it did in that particular moment after it ended. As Martin Scorsese would say, "Movies are the memories of our lifetime." And so I excitedly present the best movies I saw this year, with films starring many of my favorite actors - Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta and Daniel Day-Lewis - all making the list.

It's worth noting that this was an extraordinary year for American film, and the ranking seems almost arbitrary among the top four films. This year, Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington gave three of the best screen performances I've ever seen, and picking just one of them for Best Actor is almost impossible. I also fully intend to write another post on the rest of the year's best films, because there were many - Not Fade AwayThe Dark Knight Rises, Argo, The Sessions, Looper, Take This WaltzThis Must Be The Place, End of Watch, Arbitrage, Magic Mike, Holy Motors, The Perks of Being A Wallflower and Savages, just to name a few - that I had to leave off this list.

1. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) 

If there’s a film with a particular aesthetic this year that really strikes me as what I’d like to achieve with my work, it’s David O. Russell's wonderful Silver Linings Playbook. It has the raw, energetic vitality and subjectivity of a Scorsese picture, and yet the camerawork isn’t nearly as stylized and polished. It’s all handheld and ideal for capturing the brilliant comic and dramatic timing of the actors. Russell is the rare filmmaker who lets an ensemble shine to its fullest while also making bold and powerful directorial choices with camera. It’s unlikely that a film like Silver Linings Playbook will win many awards for its cinematography – this is not a sweeping epic, but an intimate film – but it absolutely should be considered. There's an uneasiness to the camerawork in the film, as if at any moment Russell is going to push in quickly and Pat (Bradley Cooper) is really going to lose it. O. Russell makes brilliant walking movies – in both Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter (2010), we’re introduced to a neighborhood and community by following a walking or jogging character joyously tumble through the neighborhood. His talent for assembling a furiously engaging soundtrack matches Scorsese’s gift for music, too. He’s all rock-and-roll. With Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, Russell has skyrocketed to one of my favorite American directors.

And although it’s a moving and believable romance, the film itself isn’t afraid to get dark and explore the potential violence inherit in mental illness. I’ve rarely cared more deeply about a set of characters – even minor supporting ones, such as the characters played by Chris Tucker and John Ortiz – than I do in this picture. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give two of the finest performances of the year.

What can I say about Robert De Niro in this picture? His work here is so moving and powerful. After being virtually ignored for impeccable performances in recent years (Everybody’s Fine, Stone, Being Flynn, The Good Shepherd), it looks like De Niro will receive his first Academy Award nomination in twenty-one years. He deserves to win for this performance – not because he wasn’t even nominated for The King of Comedy (1983), Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Once Upon A Time in America (1984), Casino (1995), Heat (1995), Wag the Dog (1997), The Untouchables (1987), A Bronx Tale (1993) and countless other classics, although they most certainly owe him – but because he gives the best supporting turn of the year.

2.  The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) 

After three viewings of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, it’s still difficult to really express how I feel about this melancholic love story. I can say with great certainty that it's the finest film Anderson has made yet, and that's saying something, as his There Will Be Blood (2007) and Magnolia (1999) are two of my favorite films of all time.

In the opening of the film, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves to be a seaman in World War II. His sweetheart, Doris, writes to him, but he never writes back. At war, he is restless and at odds with the other men in his company. His behavior is perverse and immature. But beneath his embarrassing sexual behavior is a kind of restless longing for love and understanding. After he returns from the war, he’s aimless – he hops from job to job, drinking booze wherever he can find it. When he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new religious movement called the Cause, Freddie finds direction and purpose. Even if he doesn’t always buy the theories of the Cause, Freddie finds a kind of father figure in Lancaster.

Where is Freddie’s father? Freddie tells a stranger early on in the film that he reminds him of his father (a stranger who later dies from Freddie's strong booze), and Freddie later reveals that his father died from alcoholism. His relationship with Lancaster develops into something resembling a kind of father-son bond. It’s fascinating to look back at Freddie’s aggression toward a man he is photographing in the department store early in the film, who strangely resembles Lancaster – does this man remind him of his father?

Anderson’s films, as many have noted, almost always concern father-son relationships. In my Advanced Production class, we noted the similarities between the first processing scene on the boat in The Master (one of the most electrifying and best-acted scenes in recent cinema) and the interview scene in Magnolia between Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) and the reporter barraging him with questions.

In my opinion, the finest section of The Master begins with Lancaster sitting alone in a darkened room, looking out on his unsuspecting followers. He looks deeply conflicted, enshrouded in darkness (looking uncannily like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane), and although we don’t ever come to know Lancaster’s specific doubts about what he’s preaching, this scene establishes that doubts, or some form of uncertainty, exist. After following Lancaster out toward his eager audience, we watch Freddie in the crowd, as he listens to Lancaster speak. Something feels false to Freddie. We don’t know exactly what it is that strikes him this way, but that’s not important. Confused, Freddie does his established walking exercise, when he comes across a publisher (Kevin J. O’Connor) from New York. The publisher asks Freddie what he thinks of Lancaster’s latest book. Freddie, conflicted, asks the publisher what he thinks. When Freddie hears his worst fears confirmed by the publisher - that the book is hogwash - he lashes out at him, except it’s different from the first time Freddie went nuts on someone who dared dissent against the Master. This time, Freddie escorts the publisher outside, beats him, and then sinks on a nearby bench, his head in his hands. It’s here that Freddie understands he isn’t the only one who thinks the Cause is completely false – and yet, as always, Freddie so desperately needs something in which to believe. In the next scene, he takes off on the motorcycle, leaving Dodd and the Cause.

Seeing The Master for a second or third time allows for a deeper understanding of Amy Adams’ character – I gathered that she is almost more deeply committed to the Cause than her husband. “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world," Lancaster says to Freddie near the end of the film. Is he talking about his wife? 

By the time Freddie arrives at Doris’ house near the end of the film and speaks to her mother, we’re looking at a different person. Freddie has matured. What’s astonishing about The Master is that it doesn’t discredit the positive effects the Cause has on Freddie. Through his commitment to Lancaster and his cause, Freddie arguably come to terms emotionally with many of his demons, and resists many of his primal urges when he could not before.
I reject the notion that the film is too distant – I found it more emotionally moving than There Will Be Blood. The film is almost entirely subtextual, and in its own strange way, it is an emotionally cathartic film. At the end of the film, Freddie is still the same lost boy, albeit matured and looking for something deeper. That something deeper, though, isn’t the Cause. The last shot of the film encapsulates Freddie’s eternal struggle – everything he reaches for dissolves into sand. He strives for acceptance in a group and he longs for love, but by the end, the only woman beside him is that imaginary sand goddess, who crumbles into sand just like everything else.

3. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) 

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in some time. The picture borrows elements from many of the great revisionist westerns, including Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) and unfolds into a gloriously violent and exhilarating western that is every bit as masterful as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

But as outrageously funny and gleefully entertaining as Django Unchained is, Tarantino isn’t afraid to graphically depict the horrors of slavery. The violence in the film is absolutely necessary – first, to brutally capture the way slaves were treated (in a way that few films have ever attempted), and secondly, to allow Django to paint the walls red with retribution. If you were among those who clapped during the last thirty minutes of Inglourious Basterds, you’ll have no shortage of smiles during this film.

There’s not really a need to explain why Django Unchained works so well. I love this movie for the same reasons I love Pulp Fiction (1994) and every other Tarantino film. His writing is impeccable. Every performance is brilliant – from Jamie Foxx’s quiet and understated work as Django to Samuel L. Jackson’s hilariously un-hip servant Stephen. Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz will likely both be nominated for Academy Awards, because, well, it’s just about impossible to pick a favorite between their outstanding supporting turns. DiCaprio, the best actor of his generation, continually gives unbelievably complex performances (J. Edgar, Shutter Island, Inception, Revolutionary Road, The Departed) that the Academy chooses to ignore, and so I can only hope that they not only nominate him this year, but give him the Oscar.  

4. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

To say that I’ve been looking forward to Lincoln for many years would be a massive understatement. This is the film I was hoping Steven Spielberg would make right after his masterful Munich (2005), and now, seven years later, Spielberg has given us one of the richest and most extraordinary films of his career. Lincoln is a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln in the months leading up to the end of the Civil War, with emphasis placed on the congressional fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who has written the most complex, dense and thoughtful script of this year) are careful to examine the moral grey areas in Lincoln’s decision-making, and the film’s presentation of the democratic process is fittingly chaotic.

The central performance by Day-Lewis as Lincoln is impeccable. Where Lincoln excels better than any Spielberg film, however, is in the supporting ensemble – every new scene comes alive with rich characterizations by many of the finest working character actors. Acting nominations are in order for David Strathairn, as Secretary of State William Seward; Sally Field, as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln; James Spader, as political lobbyist W.N. Bilbo; and especially Tommy Lee Jones, who, as radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, gives a thunderous performance that is both endlessly quotable and quietly moving. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a gentle and articulate man not without his own doubts and uncertainties. This is a beautifully understated performance that will likely earn Day-Lewis his third Oscar.

Lincoln belongs in the same tier as Schindler's List, Minority Report, Jaws and Munich as a genuine Spielberg masterpiece.

5. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

The obsessive hunt to capture Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty calls to mind another masterpiece, David Fincher's Zodiac (2007). Both movies are procedurals in which the hunt consumes the life of the protagonist, and in Zero Dark Thirty, we have one of the best characters of the year with Maya (Jessica Chastain). Like Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, the characterization in this picture is subtle, and the film's political stance is largely objective (which seems to enrage just about everyone). And even though this manhunt has a more satisfying historical conclusion than the one in Zodiac, this isn't a triumphant movie. What's left of Maya by the end of the film? Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful and complex portrait of our country. Anyone claiming that this film endorses torture is an idiot, and the only thing anyone is accomplishing by accusing this film of such things is begging Hollywood to only make movies without any acknowledgment of moral ambiguity. Zero Dark Thirty is the kind of film we need. 

6. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom – the director’s first film since the should-have-been-Oscar-winning animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – was the movie event of the summer. This is a poignant and hilarious picture; it’s hard to imagine someone not responding to this material. On a personal level, I haven’t been so deeply affected by one of Anderson’s films since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), one of the last films I saw with my father before he passed away.

In a New England community in the 1960s, twelve year-old outcasts Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) run away from home together, convinced beyond any doubt that they are in love (once on the adventure, they are aided by Sam’s considerable skills as a Khaki Scout). Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are among the adults and parents leading a search-and-rescue mission to find Sam and Suzy. Willis and Norton, in particular, do some of their best work in years.

In this film, Anderson beautifully expresses both the joy and melancholy of first love. Even though Moonrise Kingdom does end on a positive note, there’s still a hint of a dissatisfied adulthood waiting for our protagonists by the end of their adventure. Whether Suzy and Sam end up together in the long run is irrelevant – their love will never feel as real and as powerful as it does in their memory. Their utopian ‘moonrise kingdom’ is something the adults have long since abandoned, and soon enough, it will exist only in Suzy and Sam’s memories.

7. Flight (Robert Zemeckis) 

If there’s another film on this list besides Silver Linings Playbook that’s representative of the sort of film I’d like to make, it is Robert Zemeckis' Flight, a powerful portrait of alcohol addiction. The film opens with an exhilarating plane crash sequence, and then unfolds into a moving character study of a man who cannot stop lying to himself. This is one of the most mature and understanding films about addiction that I’ve ever seen, and the fact that such a tortured and morally complex character is the center of a big Hollywood film is astounding. There are an endless number of things I love about this film, including its association of certain pop songs with a particular state-of-mind (for instance, Feelin’ Alright by Joe Cocker indicates a cocaine high).

There are so many powerful moments in this film. Consider the scene when Whip is dragged to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and is forced to suffer through testimony from recovered alcoholics who have found a kind of peace about which Whip can only dream. Or the subtle moment as his doomed flight takes off, as Whip throttles his plane forward, humming Feelin’ Alright, staring ahead into the stormy abyss. Whip navigating his upside-down plane is as powerful a visual metaphor as you can find in a film this year. Flight is also the story of multiple addicts and survivors. Kelly Reilly’s performance as Whip’s new girlfriend, recovering heroin addict Nicole, is very effective.

8. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

Ang Lee's Life of Pi is an overwhelmingly moving adaptation of Yann Martel's great book, which tells the inspiring and allegorical story of a young boy stranded by himself on a lifeboat with a large tiger in the middle of the ocean. What's extraordinary in this film is how cinematic the entire experience is, without losing nearly anything from the novel. The use of 3D in this film is every bit as outstanding as in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and I can't think of another recent film so deserving of an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. You couldn't have asked for a more brilliant director for this material than Lee, the visionary filmmaker behind films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Ice Storm (1997), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and the underrated Hulk (2003). 

9. Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)

Les Miserables holds a very special place in my heart – I know most of the lyrics by memory, and in high school my friend Austin Kingsbery and I advanced to Nationals with Confrontation (he played Javert and I was Valjean). Yes, I’ve longed to see this musical on film (even though I’ve always secretly harbored the desire to direct an adaptation myself, in my imaginary future as a film director). With its emphasis on performance over musical prettiness, Tom Hooper’s film version represents a bold new approach to shooting a musical, and I think it pays off beautifully. I’ve never felt so intimately and emotionally affected by the characters in a musical, and in an age where many movies seem consumed by self-referential irony, I appreciate Hooper’s unwillingness to inject even a hint of irony into the film. This is a tragic opera, and it is the Les Miserables adaptation that the fans of the musical deserve.

Hugh Jackman, as Valjean, and Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, are every bit as outstanding as you've heard, but let's not count out Russell Crowe, who brings a grave understanding to Javert that's unique and worth applauding. I've seen the musical many times, but I've never seen it like this – so intimate and so unapologetically emotional. Although I’ll never quite get over the fact that Hooper won the Best Director Oscar for The King’s Speech over David Fincher for The Social Network, I have to hand it to Hooper here – he has made a wonderful movie.

10. Bernie (Richard Linklater) 

Bernie stands alongside Before Sunset and Dazed and Confused as one of Austinite Richard Linklater’s finest films. In this endlessly funny and sometimes achingly sad true story of small-town murder, actual locals from Carthage, Texas recount the tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a beloved small-town mortician on trial for murdering a disliked elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine).

East Texas is an area that hasn't received much cinematic attention (and an area that I hold close to my heart, having spent quite a bit of my childhood in Hallsville and Longview, where my father grew up), and it comes to vivid life as a loving and warped environment in Linklater’s film. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Linklater after a screening of the film in New York City, and he remains the quintessential Texas filmmaker. Bernie, which also features career-best performances from Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey (who also excelled this year in Magic Mike and Killer Joe) is a testament to Linklater’s enduring genius.

Best Picture

Winner: Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: The Master, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark ThirtyMoonrise Kingdom

Best Director

Winner: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained; Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom

Best Actor

Winner: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Runners-Up: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Denzel Washington, Flight; Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables; Sean Penn, This Must Be The Place; Robert De Niro, Being Flynn; Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained; John Hawkes, The Sessions; Jack Black, Bernie; Richard Gere, Arbitrage

Best Actress

Winner: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained; Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe; Bruce Willis, Moonrise Kingdom and Looper; Benicio Del Toro, Savages; Russell Crowe, Les Miserables; David Strathairn, Lincoln; Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Sally Field, Lincoln

Runners-Up: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises; Amy Adams, The Master; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Kelly Reilly, Flight; Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook; Emily Blunt, Looper; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Kerry Washington, Django Unchained

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Django Unchained

Runners-Up: Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Flight, Zero Dark ThirtyLooper

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Lincoln

Runners-Up: Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, Argo

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Jake the Cinephile Is Coming Soon To Theaters... To Tell You To Shut The Hell Up

As I pack for my early Thanksgiving flight back to Austin tomorrow morning, I realize that it's been a considerable amount of time since I last updated this blog, and I can attribute a large part of that to my fairly rough start to the school year. The death of my aunt, Nancy Neff, still hasn't fully sunk in, but after a very sad week in Austin in early September, I returned back to New York for the first day of my senior year (after missing the first week of classes). Luckily, I have had truly extraordinary courses this semester to keep me motivated.

My first class, Modern American Drama, is a terrific course that encompasses many of the major American plays of the twentieth century and their depiction of the American Dream. We started with Eugene O'Neill, reading both The Hairy Ape and his masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night (soon after reading the play, I watched the film version starring Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards and directed by Sidney Lumet, which was every bit as devastating and powerful as the play). From there, we studied works by Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!), Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), Lorraine Hansberrry (A Raisin in the Sun), Edward Albee (The American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), August Wilson (Fences) and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross).

Speaking of Glengarry Glen Ross - which has been a favorite of mine for years now (there's one particular expletive-filled monologue that I very much enjoyed using for many auditions in high school) - Al Pacino is currently starring in the revival of the play on Broadway. Pacino was masterful in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross as Richard Roma, but in the current revival he is playing Shelley Levine, a brilliant casting decision. On Sunday, November 4th, I saw Pacino in the Broadway revival, and it was very likely the second-best performance I've ever seen on Broadway (just behind Mike Nichols's production of Death of a Salesman earlier this year). To see Pacino, one of my lifelong heroes, perform in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway two years ago was a dream come true. But to see him again, in this particular play, was something else entirely. Bobby Cannavale, John C. McGinley, Richard Schiff and David Harbour are also amazing in the play, and it was fascinating to see Pacino play Levine. During intermission, I talked with Tisch Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell, who was also in the audience for the performance. Everyone comes out for Pacino. How extraordinary is it that you can go to New York and see one of the world's finest actors perform live any night of the week?

I'll return to my classes this semester. I am also taking Advanced Editing Workshop, where I am editing my film Jake the Cinephile that I shot this past summer. My professor is Ray Hubley, the outstanding editor of films such as Dead Man Walking (a personal favorite of mine), and it has been so valuable to screen dailies and rough cuts of my film to the class and receive supportive feedback. Our first class was overseen by the legendary film editor and filmmaker Sam Pollard, who I had as a professor last fall. When I screened dailies from Jake the Cinephile in class, Mr. Pollard became the film's first vocal fan, making some wonderful suggestions. If Spike Lee's editor enjoyed the dailies so much, I am very much looking forward to where the film goes from here.

The most important class of the semester, of course, is my Advanced Production Workshop course, where students make their senior thesis films. My professor is the incredible Yemane Demissie, who has been my academic advisor (as part of the Dean's Scholars program) for some time. The nineteen students in the class - all of whom are remarkable and visionary filmmakers - spend the semester workshopping and critiquing each other's scripts in class.

The professor can only give film allotments to twelve students (meaning that seven students will not receive the allotment to shoot their film in the spring), so both the pitch process and the script workshop element play a large role in who ultimately receives the allotment. My advanced film is titled You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, and I think it will work well as an expansion on many of the themes I've been exploring in my other films (I will write about this film more in the future, particularly since it is my senior thesis picture). The process of refining the screenplay with my professor has been extraordinary, and Yemane's class is full of such a supportive and talented group of people. Though in the end the class has a competitive nature to it by design, I've never had such an effective writing class with so many passionate students and great friends. It reminds me that I'm getting closer and closer to the end of this whole thing, and I need to cherish every moment.

My fourth class is my Directing the Camera course, and it is also taught by Yemane. In this class, every student shoots three exercises or scenes in the class over the semester, and it is highly suggested that you use material from your own Advanced Production screenplay. I have already filmed three of the most important scenes from my script in class, each time using different actors and trying to approach the scene in a new way. This class has been valuable as both a workshop for my senior thesis script, as well as an opportunity for me to audition different actors for the lead roles in the film. More than anything, the class places an equal emphasis on camera and performance.

For my Advanced Production pitch, I prepared a short trailer for Jake the Cinephile to screen briefly during my forty-five minute pitch. I'll take this opportunity to post the first trailer for Jake the Cinephile.  Since our final evening of pick-up shots in early August, I have been slowly editing the film this semester, and I'm incredibly excited to show it to everyone. I was very lucky to get to work with so many talented individuals who made the movie possible. (By the way, I think Jake the Cinephile would wholeheartedly share the sentiments expressed in this recent blog post).

Jake the Cinephile Trailer from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

I've also been very lucky to continue interning at Sikelia Productions this semester, as the greatest filmmaker in the world and my hero, Martin Scorsese, shoots his new film The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese recently celebrated his 70th birthday, and needless to say, it is such an honor to be associated with him in any way.

I want to stray from writing in great length about specific films (my next post will be devoted entirely to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which has come to play a large role in my semester). But on Tuesday, November 13th, I was lucky enough to attend a private Tisch School of the Arts screening of Ang Lee's Life of Pi, an overwhelmingly moving adaptation of Yann Martel's great book. The screening was followed by a wonderful Q&A with the extraordinary Ang Lee (who is a Tisch alumnus) and the film's stars, Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan, moderated by Academy Award-winning Tisch professor John Canemaker. As Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell pointed out in her opening remarks after the film concluded, both Lee and Canemaker won Oscars at the 2006 Academy Awards, with Lee winning Best Director for Brokeback Mountain and Canemaker winning Best Animated Short Film for The Moon and The Son: An Imagined Conversation. Many Tisch students and faculty members eagerly attended the screening, and we were treated not only to one of the year's best pictures (the use of 3D in Life of Pi is every bit as outstanding as in Martin Scorsese's Hugo), but an incredible conversation with one of our finest filmmakers. I was speechless as I shook hands with Mr. Lee after the screening.

Of course, one of the defining events of this semester will always be Hurricane Sandy, the furious storm that took away power from Lower Manhattan for a full week and resulted in the cancellation of a full week of classes at NYU. At our apartment on Broome Street, Adam, Bobb and I lost power on Monday night. We started living in the dark, trying to decide who should sacrifice their laptop's battery life so we could watch Die Hard. (Why Die Hard? Because it's the finest action film ever made, and Bobb had never seen it). Instead, we lit some candles and painted a collaborative piece of art we call Hurricane Art (the piece now hangs proudly above our living room television, and you can see our masterpiece in the picture to the right).

Going outside during the hurricane seemed like an excellent idea, but after a few seconds walking outside of our apartment during the height of the storm, we went running back inside - it was truly terrifying. By the next morning, all of Lower Manhattan was without power. The now-famous dangling crane on 57th Street meant I couldn't go to my internship for safety reasons, even though power was back above 34th Street not too long after the storm ended (the hanging crane disrupted more than just my internship, though - read here).

New York University really came through during the hurricane. Adam, Bobb and I walked to NYU's Kimmel Center and Weinstein Dining Hall the day after the storm, which - thanks to back-up power generators - provided food, shelter and power not just for NYU students, but for many Greenwich Village residents (Alec Baldwin even came to have lunch at Kimmel). We were served delicious free food and were able to charge our laptop and phone batteries. In the eerie darkness of Lower Manhattan, Kimmel was the lone beacon of light. I've never felt more proud or more protected than I did after the hurricane thanks to NYU's relief efforts - the university truly provided for everyone during this time. Later that night, Adam, Bobb and I took shelter at our friend Mo Faramawy's apartment in Brooklyn, where power and hot water were in full force (and yes, we finally watched Die Hard that evening).

The next day, Bobb and I traveled back across the Williamsburg Bridge to powerless Manhattan, and we spent the evening at Mike Cheslik's apartment with a large group of friends, playing card games, eating canned chili (thanks to Mike's gas stove) and having late-night conversations by candlelight during the blackout with a joyous group of film students. If it sounds rather romantic, that's because it was, in a sense. We spent the night at Mike's apartment, and then our group reconvened the next morning, eating our free lunch and charging our phones and laptops at Kimmel. When then walked up to Times Square (which at this point had regained electricity) and had a movie day at the AMC Empire Times Square. We split up and saw several films in a row, some of us seeing Pitch Perfect while others saw Seven Psychopaths. Then, we joined together to catch an hour of Cloud Atlas (which most of us had already seen) before ending the day by seeing the wonderful and moving The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Afterward, we walked back into pitch-black lower Manhattan and reconvened at another person's apartment.

The period of time following the hurricane, in short, became a lot of fun. There's something to be said for losing all electricity and traveling around this great, dark city for a few days with an incredible group of people. I was scheduled to pitch for my Advanced Production class that Friday, and I had been rapidly preparing for the pitch the week before the hurricane. But once the hurricane hit Manhattan and everything was put on standby for an entire week, it was an initially frustrating but ultimately remarkable week that will remain one of the most memorable times of my college experience. It felt like summer camp with all of the people I love, or at the very least a side of college to which I'm unaccustomed.

Once classes and my internship resumed (and my attention back toward my pitch for Advanced Production Workshop), there was also the ever-important 2012 Presidential Election. My aunt Nancy Neff would have been overjoyed with the outcome. She was endlessly passionate, well-informed and articulate about her political beliefs, and the election felt a little more personal this year than it might have had she been here to vote and speak. I emailed many of her friends and reminded them to vote on Nancy's behalf, and it was a magnificent victory. At the end of the night, I went up to the roof of my apartment building to look at the Empire State Building, which had turned fully blue to commemorate President Obama's re-election. I know Nancy was smiling. (I joked, however, that as amazing as election night was, it still didn't make up for the injustice of Martin Scorsese losing this year's Best Director Oscar for Hugo).

Just before I traveled home to Austin in early September, I learned that my film The Wheels was an Official Selection of the 2012 Coney Island Film Festival. The film had a wonderful screening on Sunday, September 23rd at Sideshows by the Seashore, as part of Program 16 - Coney Island Films. This particular screening closed the festival, and the awards ceremony immediately followed the screening at El Dorado Bumper Cars. Here's a link to their website, where they have a great write-up on The Wheels. Here is a link to the full list of 2012 Official Selections at the festival.

It was truly unlike any film festival where I've had the privilege to show my work - particularly considering the amount of press the festival brought to my film. The popular blog Amusing the Zillion selected The Wheels as one of the five "Must-Sees" at the Coney Island Film Festival - here is the link to that article. Bad Lit, the Journal of Underground Film, mentioned The Wheels in their article on the Official Lineup for the festival. In addition, Deno's Wonder Wheel kindly promoted The Wheels and mentioned me on their Facebook and Twitter pages, encouraging their many fans to attend the festival and see The Wheels.

Other prominent articles on the festival included pieces from the New York Post and Time Out New York. The Coney Island Film Festival website also has a great page of Filmmaker Feedback, where you can read quotes from all of this year's directors.

As for the actual festival itself, it was a incredible experience. I attended the screening with my friend and Assistant Director of both The Wheels and Jake the Cinephile, Mike Cheslik, as well as Tom Corbisiero, the lead actor in The Wheels (he also has a small role in Jake the Cinephile). Michael Blankenburg, one of the best and most influential teachers in my life (he was my junior-year English professor at Austin High School), met us at the festival with his partner Brandon, and I was overjoyed to have a small support group present for the film. After The Wheels screened with the other shorts in the program, the directors were called onto the stage and participated in a Q&A with the audience before the awards ceremony started.

When I learned the news of my aunt's passing, I was serving as Assistant Director on an outstanding film project in Bushwick. After finishing principal photography on Jake the Cinephile in late July, much of August was spent doing pre-production for the paranormal rom-com Limbos, produced by and starring the incredibly talented Freddi Scheib and David Rysdahl, and directed by Mike Cheslik.

As part of our effort to fundraise for the film in a short amount of time, our Kickstarter campaign became a Staff Pick on Kickstarter, and we raised nearly $10,000 in a little less than two weeks. Here is the link to the Kickstarter campaign, where you can learn more about the film. Unfortunately, I needed to leave the set a day before our wrap because of the tragedy. I'm very proud of all of the effort put into Limbos - you can watch our Kickstarter video below, in which I make a brief appearance.

There's much more to report (including Tisch New Theatre's recent Fall 2012 Staged Readings), but alas, it is Thanksgiving Day, and I want to spend time with my small family. Time hurries on - there are still many experiences which occurred over the summer that I want to share, so my next few posts may recede into the past a little bit. I left New York with a smile, as there's nothing like a good heart-to-heart talk with Thelma Schoonmaker about our respective Thanksgiving plans at my internship.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nancy Neff, In Loving Memory: 1951 - 2012

My beloved aunt, Nancy Neff, passed away on Sunday. This is an extended version of what I read today at her funeral. Please read her obituary, which only hints at her extraordinary life and work, here. I hope this is the first of many pieces where I write about my love for her.

I began calling my aunt Nancy Neff “Sis” when I was very young, and I think I only stopped doing that the past few years out of embarrassment, or something. I sure wish I had kept calling her that, though, because it was a form of affection that seemed appropriate given my lifelong closeness to her. I have such strong memories of spending the night over at her house when I was very young, oftentimes having sleepovers there with Nancy, or walking her dogs with her on a weekend afternoon. I’m an only child, and I suppose she was a kind of sister, in a way – the creative, funny aunt who I rushed to sit next to at any family function.

I spent many days with Nancy at her office at the University of Texas, taking trips to the LBJ Library with her, and it became clear early on what a brilliant journalist and writer she was. In fact, I used to send movie reviews, as I recall, to Nancy every once and a while, and she came up with the idea to set up an interview for me at the West Austin News, to see if they’d be interested in hiring an eleven year-old film critic. And she was entirely responsible for me getting that job, really. She was there with me at the interview.

She was unique in so many ways. Her artistry with making pins, some of which are going to be on display later at the reception and which were sold all around Austin in various stores, inspired me to start making my own pins and laminated magnets, a bunch of which are still on her refrigerator at her house, along with many of my drawings – of Sis with her two dogs Skeeter and Biscuit, who have also passed on now (the past few years, her dogs Forrest and Tag have given her so much joy); of the New York City skyline, where I had been with her and my family many times; and many others.

To say that she encouraged my engagement with the arts would be an understatement. You only have to walk through her beautiful West Austin house and observe the framed posters of Broadway plays, the incredible paintings and pieces of folk art, the spinning racks of New Yorker magazines, the organized collection of films and CDs that numbers well into the thousands, to get a sense of how she influenced me. As a child, that house was my playground. Walking into it now, I feel an overwhelming sadness, knowing that it will have to go.

Like many memories in my life, some of my strongest memories of Nancy are tied to trips out to the theater. She introduced me to more Broadway musicals than I can recall, and she took me to see countless movies over the years. I remember we saw Mars Attacks (1996) in theaters – we both laughed hysterically throughout that one. Yikes! says Jack Nicholson, as the aliens start attacking. They’re scattered throughout my memory – Christmas Eve of 1998, Nancy, my mom and I went to see You’ve Got Mail. She also snuck me into the last thirty minutes of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) after we saw another movie – she knew how much I wanted to see that picture, and against the wishes of my parents, she took me into the theater to watch the end of the movie. My mom and dad were not happy about that.

I frequently borrowed her VHS tapes to watch at home – she was directly responsible for convincing my mom that I needed to see The Godfather when I was ten (I remember the three of us had a discussion about it at Rudy’s Bar-BBQ), and boy, was she right. And then a few months later after watching The Godfather (1972), she lent me her VHS of The Godfather Part II (1974). Of course, long discussions about both films ensued immediately after watching them.

At some point, it became clear to me that Nancy was of a different political persuasion than most of the others in the Neff family. Nancy was a lifelong, very passionate supporter of the Democratic party, and if she was outspoken about it, it was only because she was outnumbered in her family. So she was very happy when I joined the club at some point during my high school years. I think she was always proud to know that she had a fellow Democrat in the family. And, you know, I can only hope that, this November, a member of the Neff family is willing to give their vote to the Democratic candidate for president as a way of honoring Nancy and making sure she gets a vote, because God knows nothing would please her more.

For years, she’s been exactly like my mom and grandma – someone I could call and talk to over the phone for hours at a time – about the arts, politics, my experiences at school, the most recent film purchases she had made. There are very few people in my life who have been so invested and so interested in everything I do, from the books I wrote as a child, to the plays in which I performed in high school, to my time at New York University and my experiences there.

There aren’t many people left on my mom’s side of the family. She, Nancy and John lost both of their parents many years ago, and now there’s really just my uncle John and my mom Gretchen left to survive the original Neff family, and that makes me very sad. I know there’s comfort to be found in imagining that Nancy, and her mother and father, Jack and Lou Neff – as well as my father John – are all together up above watching down on us, and perhaps one day we’ll join them again. But I encourage those of you who knew her and grew up with her to sift through those old boxes of pictures from the past, any letters of correspondence you had with her, any articles she wrote, and display them proudly. Because right now, that’s what we have left of her, our memories and those pictures, pins, articles, letters, awards – and I believe in preserving that.

After my dad passed away ten years ago, I assumed that I had experienced my share of loss – surely the other people who love me will always be here. The thought that Nancy would someday not be a part of my life had never crossed my mind. If I had known that I would never see my aunt again, oh, the things I would have said, the time I would have spent. To quote The Godfather, “There just wasn’t enough time.” Goodbye, Sis. I love you.