Reading Quentin Tarantino

Saying Quentin Tarantino is a great screenwriter is like saying that Bach is a good composer or Wilt Chamberlain is a great basketball player – he may not be the best ever, but he’s a definitive and obvious master of the medium and he’s won two academy awards, which seems like too few. But because the only people who read screenplays other than screenwriting students and people who are actually in the films that the screenplays become, there’s something to be said about Tarantino’s craft that goes beyond how well it translates to the screen. Tarantino’s screenplay are reading experiences in a way that few are – they go beyond functionality and economy and into a totally unusual domain where what follows INT – JACKRABBIT SLIMS – NIGHT are eloquent and hilarious and even literary. For that reason, they’re terribly uninstructive for beginning screenwriters, who could never get away with this (aside: the most instructive and economic script I’ve ever read is The English Patient, which is less than a hundred pages even though the movie is about three hours long). Tarantino’s scripts read like novels – they are even broken up into chapters, which often make it into the movies. I haven’t seen a Tarantino movie fresh since Jackie Brown; I’ve read the script for every one through some kind of illegal downloading, most recently because of the leak of The Hateful Eight that made him threaten never to make it. I was delighted and read it within an hour of getting it.

The other reason you should read Tarantino’s scripts is because whole scenes or chapters end up on the cutting room floor for budget or for length. Most famously, this happened with Kill Bill, which ended up becoming two movies even as whole scenes are dropped. Sadly, the ending of Kill Bill involved an epic night-time sword fight on the beach between Bill and The Bride, which the film replaces with her much quicker sneak attack. Inglorious Basterds explains how the orphaned Jewish refugee Shoshanna becomes the owner of a movie theater in Vichy France, and also how Donnie became the Bear Jew. Django Unchained explains how Calvin Candie came to own Broomhilda. True Romance is a very different script, with a less linear structure that creates mystery and ends more tragically – but we have Tony Scott to thank for those changes.

Here’s a few examples of Tarantino’s descriptions at their most vivid, and also some stuff that’s been dropped (all of these scripts are available online; all you have to do is google them).

Kill Bill opens gloriously with the fight between Uma Thurman’s Bride and Vivica A. Fox’s Cobra. And the description realizes the domestic destruction they bring:

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The film obviously (and maybe even wisely) cuts all the specifically observed domestic details, like the commemorative plates, but here we get that Cobra is now Vernita – an assassin who has thrived in the domestic life of a homemaker that the Bride has never known. And that’s precisely what the Bride is set on destroying. But the energy of the film is completely evident on the page. Tarantino apparently can’t type well, so he writes his scripts in spiral notebooks with red and black felt pens (hence the misspellings and typos: it’s “Crispus Attucks”). Reading this, you can see his visual imagination at work.

The early scripts – Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance – are leaner and meaner. But one abandoned scene in Pulp Fiction deserves to be mentioned. It’s when Vincent Vega goes to pick up Mia Wallace and she talks to him over the intercom:

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This is the classic early Tarantino that would be ripped off over the next few years – spot-on perfect pop culture references coming from unlikely sources as a way of establishing character quirks. And the undeniable fact is that it was wisely cut from the film because it doesn’t make sense: Vincent has just shot up and wouldn’t be this lucid. Mia is nervous yet mysterious and cool and this gives too much away. The film shows a stoned (and equally nervous) Travolta out of it and swaying to the dope, and that works perfectly. With the Jackrabbit Slim scene yet to come, it’s just too much chocolate syrup in your milk. But this exchange, particularly the Encyclopedia Brown reference, kills me. I wish it could exist in another movie.

Django Unchained is full of references to other Westerns, as is The Hateful Eight. But my favorite is the description of “Minnie’s Haberdashery” in The Hateful Eight, which is where (this is not a spoiler) about 70% of the story is set:

qt3Apart from the punchline, and the loving encyclopedic knowledge of Westerns, this seems like the closest thing you’re going to get to shooting the shit with Tarantino at a bar. And since the rest of the film is going to be set there, you can observe how much he makes the setting a character. I seriously doubt we’ll hear any of this in the movie, but if it works, you’ll see the spirit.

There are more, but I’ll return to Kill Bill because it’s one of my all-time favorite reading experiences. I bought it in  New York from a street vendor (they still do this) before the movie came out and read it in a sitting. In the script, Bill is introduced much differently. We never see him in the first film, but we do hear his voice – that’s not the case in the script. When Elle Driver goes to poison the comatose Bride in a hospital, and Bill calls at the last minute to tell her not to, we don’t hear Bill’s reasons – we just see this:

qt4There’s so much more mystery established here than what the finished film ends up showing: Bill from the neck down caressing a sword and adding what the script only hints at through the enigmatic pauses. It makes Bill – the guy in the title who needs to be killed – too cool for us even to listen to yet. He’s as persuasive as he is deadly, and this is something that I feel got lost in David Carradine’s stylized performance – here, you can see the part that was originally written for Warren Beatty, playing on his image as a master manipulator of woman, and making his ultimate demise more satisfying.

And finally, to show that Tarantino can do the whole brevity thing, I’ll close with the way he introduces Bill. This is my favorite thing that was ever cut from a Tarantino script. It’s in a chapter called “Can she bake a cherry pie,” and it takes place in an illegal casino. Bill has knocked at the door and we haven’t seen him yet, so we’re following the perspective of eyes through a slot in the door. And here’s what we finally see. Keep in mind that this is the guy from the title, who has been talked about but never seen or heard, so we’re expecting the same kind of intense and awesome details we get for Minnie’s Haberdashery. But instead:qt5

 

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A Livable Galaxy Far Far Away

In his review of Revenge of the Sith, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane writes:

“After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn’t go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from “Alien” and “Blade Runner”—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence.”

Lane wrote a much more sympathetic review of the latest movie, but there’s still a hint of the “disinfected galaxy” and “terrible puritan dream” complaint there. In fact, I’d say this is one of the things that Lucas set up so brilliantly in the blueprint of A New Hope: that a populated interplanetary world is a terrible, terrible place. There are deserts and swamps and ice globes, and these are more or less the only places to live. You survive in dive bars, or in caves, or in floating palaces, or by farming ore or sand or whatever Owen Lars has Luke doing on Tattoine. If you take a wrong step, you might get swallowed and digested by a Sarlacc. I mean, what’s disinfected about Jabba the freaking Hutt? I’m reminded of Stephen Crane:

One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. However, the Swede found a saloon.

It’s telling that when Luke and the gang finally arrive at the Rebel headquarters, we only get a brief shot of the forest world they’ve occupied. That’s not what Lucas wanted to show. The jungle in Endor, the most beautiful of the planets we visit in the original trilogy, is modeled after Vietnam. We spend quality time inside of a Jawa dump truck. Even on the Death Star, he wants to show us the trash compacter. Kashyyyk, the Wookie Planet home to Chewbacca, seemed to be okay because treehouses, but Wookies smell terrible.

Or, you have the sterile, aseptic mechanicalism of Death Stars and the intermediary places like Cloud City. It makes sense that the Empire would be a desirable option when the alternate option is a weekly sand-people cane-beating. So long as you don’t challenge them, the Empire deviously presents itself as the kind of order that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere in this galaxy.

  • (FWIW: the main thing I remember about the dreadful Attack of the Clones is when Anakin finds his mother in a Tusken village, full of tee-pees, campfires, etc. Are the sand-people supposed to be the native inhabitants, like Indians. Do they raise children in some kind of civilized way? Are they trying to take back a territory that’s rightfully theirs?)

When I lived in College Park, Maryland, I was always delighted to see the signs that welcomed you to the city: “A Livable Community.” No need to double-down on its virtues – “livable,” it’s the most purely functional of descriptors. What was odd about College Park is that it doesn’t fit the values of “livable” as its mostly described: it’s difficult if not impossible to walk or bike anywhere because of the constant traffic flow and tiny sandwalks. It’s livable in the most basic and blandest possible sense, and that’s very much the virtue of a place like Tatooine.

But unlike the George Lucas who had just come off THX-1138 and American Graffiti, J.J. Abrams has always been more into grand vistas of epic, natural beauty. There are Aztec-ians ruins in his galaxy which rest on a palatial lake, and a final battle takes place where it might be cool to go cross-country skiing. And at the end, we find out that SPOILER SPOILER lives on a beautiful SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER, which does seem a bit more like prime real estate than Dagobah. But Abrams does get one aspect right where the prequels failed brutally: shit breaks down a lot. That’s the through-line of American Graffiti to the original trilogy, where Lucas was interested in monster cars and the kind of seemingly pathetic but weirdly inspirational guys who drive them like John Milner and Han Solo (Who you calling scruffy looking?) Those movies were inspired by the then-clunky approach to American car manufacturing, while it’s telling that the prequels came out after the Japanese had the bright idea of making cars that don’t break down a lot. Abrams revises that spirit in The Force Awakens, at least in part – the wonder of the earlier scenes relies on lonely Rey living in the hulking carcass of an AT-AT walker, left over from some unmentioned battle. This seems right: it’s hard enough to land those suckers on a desert planet, and I doubt that Jakku has the kind of civic infrastructure to provide for some kind of reasonable salvaging budget.

And yet, what worked about those early movies was that despite the Wookie scat, we all would want to live there. This is why the first three movies work, and modern epics not filmed in New Zealand could learn a bit from this – its physical trappings are messy, dangerous, foul, and wonderful.

Best Picture Winners 1929-1932

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In which I continue to watch the Best Pictures in order:

The grand irony of a “talkie” like All Quiet on the Western Front is that its best moments have no dialogue whatsoever. Yet without the requirement of repertory music or a score, it is allowed to use silence to its greatest effect, punctuated by intense bombing. If Wings is about the way the glory of battle is interrupted by mindless tragedy, in All Quiet it’s pure FUBAR. Even the impressive-for-its-time realism of Wings looks hopelessly romantic by comparison. The battle scenes still hold up: they’re jarring, disorienting, and mostly, loud. The film contrasts the quick and chaotic clash of battle with the intense and long stretches when soldiers are starving and waiting. Watching this in a movie theater must have made audiences want to duck for cover. Lewis Milestone, another director who made a whole lot of movies (including the original Oceans Eleven!) is at his best in these “foxhole” scenes, which don’t seem stagy even with the static camera, but hauntingly claustrophobic.

The most celebrated scene is its ending, but I was most moved by a moment when Baumer, the protagonist, kills a Frenchman and must wait out a gunfight with the corpse. It’s here that contemporary audiences could see the “realism” that dramatic movies could aspire to. Yet the scene is almost ruined by the constantly yapping Baumer, whose dialogue seems to exist to remind audiences that the audio was working. Watching the movie now, the flaw of All Quiet on the Western Front is that it gives over to preachiness and polemic, to having mostly unsophisticated soldiers spell out all of Erich Maria Remarque’s unsubtle themes. The opening, in which a professor shouts “Dulce et Decorum est” to his schoolboy soldiers, is embarrassing and unnecessary. Yet I concede All Quiet its “masterpiece” status, as its power still resonates among the best and most provocative anti-war documents.

Both the second and fourth Best Picture winners, Broadway Melody (1928-29) and Cimarron (Best Picture 1931-32) feature stuttering characters, as though the new technology is showing off its ability to not only present noise, but also nuanced, scattered, realistic noise. Broadway Melody uses music to produce very limited song and dance numbers; they lack the excitement of the “Let’s put on a show” musicals that would come later. As its poster declares: “TALKING SINGING DANCING” – which pretty much covers all of the things that happen in Broadway Melody. It’s baffling that a slight film like this impressed much of anyone, even if it’s occasionally fun to watch the quirky female leads. Yet the movie is maddening: even though the vibrant women are the only interesting characters in the film, they’re still at the mercy of men. When “Queenie,” the really talented one, abandons show business for marriage, it leaves a really sour taste. It’s anyone’s guess why this fairly typical backstage drama ends on such a weird downer note. Yet here’s a case where the Academy does what it still does best: sneaking a middling film into longevity by giving it an award. There’s more about it here.

“It’s men like him who build the world, the rest of us just come along and live in it.” That’s an actual line of dialogue from 1932 Best Picture winner Cimarron, and it became the more complicated subtext of a number of much better westerns. More of a historical epic than a western, Cimarron wants to capture the way great men bring the savage frontier kicking and screaming into civilization. This contemporary review from the New York Times says it all when the first paragraph notes the “stupendous undertaking in view of the time that is covered and the hosts of persons in its scenes.” But stupendous in this case translates to kind of stupid, and that’s not merely our inability to adapt our sensibility toward this kind of entertainment: the film turns a 336 page book into a two hour movie and feels like its missing three hours of character development. Edna Ferber (Giant) wasn’t exactly John Steinbeck, but she was good at this kind of epic of Manifest Destiny that the movie truncates to baffling incoherence – the key feminist plot of the novel, of a virtuous and long-suffering wife who becomes a congresswoman, is made ridiculous through this grand sweep of time.

To watch the movie now is to witness a different breed of acting, so bereft of the kind of naturalism we’re used to that it seems designed as parody. As fist-punching, newspaper-paper writing, do-gooding Yancey Cravat, Richard Dix is a grinning, strutting he-man caked in make-up. Comically handsome and wooden, Dix’s exaggerated baritone and swagger makes the Super Golden Crisp-craving Sugar Bear seem like a method actor. Yancey is a Wyatt Earp figure, the kind of restless soul who leaves one town he’s saved and then goes to start another. His bolo tie is, I assume, supposed to affirm his intense masculinity. He’s a bit like Poochie: whenever he’s not on screen, everyone asks, “Where’s Yancey?” Yancey’s exploits are pure tall tale – he shoots the hilariously unthreatening outlaw “The Kid” and dies while somehow saving everyone else in an oil rig explosion only to reveal that it has somehow also left him scarred with terrible old-age makeup.

Reading that New York Times review, however, reveals the excitement of the critic and that anticipation of the “spectator” to see the grand spectacle of such a “stupendous undertaking.” Indeed, the movie does manage to capture some of the chaos of these earlier outposts, which is probably not that dissimilar to the experience of being on a film-set in the early 1930s. Yancey might almost seem as a stand-in for the directors who were trying to legitimize film in the eyes of critical audiences who didn’t see its value as a form. The move from chaos to order that’s inherent in western narratives might be a popular theme for just this reason, though John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann would challenge this trajectory brilliantly. Cimarron treats it with a solemnity that makes it pretty easy to make fun of.

Watching Cimarron and Broadway Melody suggests that if these were the best movies of the early talkie period, things must have been pretty grim indeed. But that’s certainly not the case. Broadway Melody beat out one of Buster Keaton’s best, most entertaining films, Steamboat Bill Jr. And in 1931, Cimarron rode its epic trappings to victory over definitive and groundbreaking classics like City Lights, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar. Yet the fledgling Academy Awards weren’t going to give its highest praise to a silent film by Charlie Chaplin, nor were they going to reward the values of gangster heroes played by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were light years removed from the upright moralism of Yancey Cravat.

WINGS – The First Best Picture Winner

My wife and I recently decided to watch all the Best Picture winners. I’m reminded of Liz Lemon’s quest to watch all the movies on the AFI Top 100 list but “I only have ‘Star Wars’ and ‘’Tootsie,’ so we just keep watching those two over and over.” I think the in-the-moment Best Picture winners are more fun than the retrospective, obligatory AFI list: they reflect the odd mix of public and critical sentiment from the years they were produced. They’re better indicators of what kinds of films were “important” and also what was “popular,” as well as who was important and popular. And also, those AFI lists have the gift of hindsight in reflecting canonical and enduring sacred cows, some of which weren’t appreciated in their own times, while many of these Best Picture winners have been long-forgotten. This may be a fools mission, or a wild success: we may never make it to Broadway Melody of 1929, or I may have to suffer through Crash again.

But we did watch the first Best Picture winner: 1927/28’s Wings (for the first six years of nominations, they gave tem bi-annually). On any scale, Wings was an insanely big movie. In addition to featuring the hottest star of the moment, Clara Bow, it had revolutionary visual effects. It would have been like if Titanic starred Julia Roberts. And yet, in 1997, we were seasoned movie-watchers; we could have seen (but probably didn’t) Speed 2 earlier that year, and been weary of heavy out of control cruise-ship action. What makes Wings compelling in retrospect is that most of the middle-class audiences watching had probably never been on a plane, or seen this kind of aerial footage before:

Even today, that’s pretty impressive stuff for a time when CGI indicated just three random letters thrown together. Director William Wellman was one of those guys that made about seven movies a year in a number of different genres, yet Wings was special to him since he was an experienced combat pilot. As the award indicated, Wings would manage to grab the dual honor of being (then)  the best movie ever made about flying, and the best movie ever made about World War I. The flying scenes are still particularly exciting because they’re recreating something that happened only ten years before, so the technology isn’t nostalgized or reinvented through a modern eye. It’s a bit like going to the most awesome air show ever.

And the plot? It mainly fills the gaps when guys aren’t shooting at each other in bi-planes. Clara Bow’s role as a daffy, lovelorn ambulance driver might seem egregious, but it probably put butts in seats. Even if underwritten, it’s impressive that Wellman wanted to show women’s roles in the war, as she gets to exhibit heroism of their own. Bow is delightful and winning, perky and sexy, while virtuous and brave; she gets her screwball moment in an overlong scene involving a drunken pilot and bubbles – lots and lots of bubbles:

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The plot centers around Jack and David, two rivals in love (though not for Bow, who becomes an interloper of sorts) who becomes comrades in battle. It’s all pretty standard stuff until the end, when the film became unexpectedly moving and complicated. David, who has grown increasingly morbid, and gets shot down behind enemy lines. However, he heroic steals a German plane and shoots down several “Heinies” before they can take off. It’s a grand act of heroism, but when he tries to fly back to his own turf, he does so flying a plane with German insignia. In a tense moment, he’s spotted by Jack, and tries to wave him down. But Jack is a good soldier and competently and unhesitatingly shoots him down. At this moment, a movie that has primarily been jingoistic about a predictably masculine heroism questions the values that it promotes. Considering that Wings had the support of the War department, this was a particularly subversive move. And to follow that, Wings has this erotically charged death scene – it was the first movie to show two men kissing.

Watching Wings is admittedly somewhat exhausting:  two and half hours long and its everything and the kitchen sink plotting is often poorly paced. There are setups without payoffs, and it takes too long to get to the flying. Yet if you can put yourself in the perspective of a 1927 audience, it’s magical, and rewarding, like many silent films are. There’s an awe here that’s lacking because we know that big summer movies are the creations of skilled people on computers, rather than visual innovators figuring out how to film an aerial battle around all the clouds, or how to film a battle using 3500 extras and timed explosions. If time has proven that it’s not the best movie of 1927 and 1928 (Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise would win that easily), Wings is definitely the biggest and most exciting. And you can be forgiven for confusing that with the “Best.”

(You can watch Wings for free with an Amazon Prime subscription)

Waiting for the Next NORTH DALLAS FORTY: on Sports movies

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Disney has been in the business of making sports movies for quite a while, but it’s only in the last fifteen years that they’ve ventured into what might be called the “prestige sports movie.” In the 1970s, the Mouse made such day camp favorites as The Love Bug series, The World’s Greatest Athlete, and Gus, about a field goal kicking mule. In the 1990s, they veered more toward kid-themed somehow-classics like The Mighty Ducks, Air Bud, and Angels in the Outfield (though Cool Runnings remains the best sports movie ever made by Disney). These movies survive on internet-fueled nostalgia, as most of the people who were nine when they came out now write for Buzzfeed. That changed first with 2000’s Remember the Titans, and then with 2002’s The Rookie, a modest hit based on a true story about a middle-aged nobody who finds out he has a 96 mph fastball. Since then, Disney has thrived on safe, family-friendly, inspirational “true” stories with all the complexity, competence, and celebration of a coach-pitch post-game speech. Similarly, you fully expect someone to pass out popsicles and juice boxes after the movie.

As the trailer for Million Dollar Arm reveals, these movies define themselves as celebrating sport at its purest, primarily through its presentation of professional sports as a place where inspiration happens. Every one of them deploys the underdog narrative in the exact same way, every one features an obligatory romance, and every one of them wants very badly to be “the next Hoosiers.” Since they all come with the glowing endorsement of the leagues that support them, they’re pretty much propaganda. Chances are if you’re watching a movie that features a St. Louis Cardinals logo, it’s because you’re watching exactly the kind of story that Major League Baseball wants you to see. You leave thinking that the NFL and MLB are the kind of benign institutions that their commercials suggest. They affirm all the values of Roger Goodell and his anxious marketing department, or otherwise they wouldn’t exist.

I realize my cynicism is apparent, but it’s because I’m in mourning. With the exception of perhaps Moneyball, it’s been a while since we’ve seen the kind of sports movie the 70s were very good at making. Instead of seeing the individual or outsider assimilated by the system, the sports movies of the 1970s pit them against each other. The Longest Yard is my favorite of these, and one of my favorite movies of all time: Burt Reynolds, cooler than he’s ever been as Paul Crewe, first defies professional sports and then professional imprisonment. We get the sense that Crewe finds more value and community in the psychos and weirdoes he’s coaching than the organized sports that made him famous.

Slap Shot might be even better, as besides being a very funny and foul movie, it’s essentially about the troubling relationship between players, owners, money, and communities. When Paul Newman’s minor-league hockey lifer Reggie Dunlop tells his team to beat the holy hell out of their opponents, it’s because he think he’s rebelling against the ownership who wants to sell the team. But when the team becomes a grand success, he’s actually just filling their coffers. Slap Shot also has the audacity to take aim at the fans, which extends the critique to the audience who watches it. You like this stuff?

And yet, The Longest Yard and Slap Shot have a more intense love of sports than the Disney movies. As in Bull Durham, they’re usually filled with cynical lifers whose pure passion and love for the game keeps them going. A movie like North Dallas Forty wants to show how professional sports eats up and corrupts the players who live for it. The Bad News Bears does all this on the small scale of Little League, and I can’t think of a better representation of the distance between the “values” that sports are supposed to produce and the apparent joy of playing them. Even The Natural and Major League clashes players against the owners who want to sell them.

What happened? I blame garbage that nobody wanted to watch like Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday or that ESPN show Playmakers that only wanted to sensationalize the most seedy and sordid aspects of professional sports. Along with my guilty pleasure featuring my favorite actor Anfernee Hardaway, Blue Chips, they sacrifice character and story for polemic. In the case of 90s films like Blue Chips and The Program, their messages were NCAA and ESPN approved from their logos to their explicit messages, showing cases of isolated rather than systemic corruption. Overblown, overpopulated, and full of speechifying, those movies aimed for the fences and hit into a broken-bat fielder’s choice. It was only natural to go the other way.

But to close on a positive note, a recent antidote to the potential treacle of Million Dollar Arm is Sugar. Sugar follows the titular Dominican knuckleballer as he is transplanted to a Single-A team in Iowa. Even as Sugar shows its protagonist eaten up and spit out by a system that only cares about one of his arms, there’s still an obvious love for the sport he’s playing. And even though it puts a dark spin on the underdog narrative, it still possesses an optimism toward Sugar as a human. Unlike Million Dollar Arm, which promises to be yet another story of a virtuous white person who makes some kind of racial equality possible, Sugar puts an intense focus on its displaced, often hopelessly confused protagonist.

Even though it was one of the best movies of 2009, Sugar came and went with little attention; it had only a small release and then went quickly and quietly to DVD even though its directors had just made the Oscar-nominated Half Nelson. Because of all the trappings they have to recreate, sports movies are expensive to make, and therefore only the most audience-friendly are going to be made. Sadly, that’s a difficult model to upend.

Best Movies of 2013

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It’s April, so of course I’m finally posting my top ten movies of the year. 2013 was my favorite year for movies in a long time, probably since 2007. So here we go

Didn’t Like as Much as Everyone Else: Spring Breakers (hated), Gravity, Nebraska, Room 237

Haven’t seen: Before Midnight, Blue is the Warmest Color, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, The Spectacular Now, Mud,

Honorable Mention:  The Great Gatsby,Enough Said, Star Trek Into Darkness, Dallas Buyers Club, Short Term 12

  • No. 10: To the Wonder

Terrence Malick’s least ambitious movie is still a pensive and often beautiful look at domesticity. I’d be happy if he made one of these a year. Though the suburban spaces try to suppress the lyricism and poetry typical to Malick’s film, they still find a way to exist. If the houses and communities these characters inhabit are built for economy rather than beauty, the movie is not. As Roger Ebert said in the last review he ever wrote, “Snatches of dialogue, laughter, shared thoughts, drift past us. Nothing is punched up for dramatic effect . . . There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.” I agree.

  • No. 9: American Hustle

A joy to watch. David O. Russell smartly turns this complicated con-artist story into a movie more interested in who these strivers, dreamers, and schemers are. It’s as though Russell knew there were two movies that could be made, and choose the better one. So what if you don’t know how ABSCAM worked, when you get Louis CK and Bradley Cooper yelling at each other? Russell returns to a group of actors he’s handled before (other than Jeremy Renner), and they’re all typically great. They have amazing scenes together and apart. Each of them attempts to win the movie, and that scene-stealing is appropriate for a movie that’s essentially about stealing. Also, any movie that begins with a freshly fat Christian Bale putting on a hair-piece, followed by a slow-motion walking sequence set to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work is going to earn my favor.

  • No. 8: Drinking Buddies

The breakout mumble-core movie of 2013 works because of aimless, articulate, but likable characters – the genre’s best contribution. It’s the most accurate title of the year: Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde are drinking buddies and would-be lovers, and everyone around them either tries to elevate them or is disappointed by them. They’re kind of happy but not really. The characters make bad decisions because they don’t know what they want. Joe Swanberg has always made the most sexually explicit mumble-core movies (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends), but here there’s rarely a moment of intimacy and a lot of awkward encounters. The Dissolve called it “aggressively inconsequential,” but I don’t find anything aggressive about this at all. The characters lives are inconsequential, but they’re finely drawn and examined without strong judgment but with compassion. My fear has always been that mumble-core will escape its gritty trappings and get lost in ambition and money, but Drinking Buddies gives me hope for these grander possibilities.

  • No. 7: The Counselor

The hatred for The Counselor might be understandable, since its trailers made it look like a John Grisham movie instead of a typically elliptical and dark text written by Cormac McCarthy. This one offers none of the economy and clarity of No Country For Old Men, even though its plot trapping seem more familiar (lawyer and the mob, etc.). As a movie about ambition, it’s almost Shakespearean, right down to the revealing and literary monologues. It’s a tragedy populated by people we don’t really even like or know that well. I was entranced. My only complaint is with Cameron Diaz’s performance (though not the character as written): other than the one scene where she has, er, fun with a car, the film only further elucidates her weaknesses as a dramatic actress. But Ridley Scott brings the right amount of gloss and competence to a movie that resists easy interpretation.

  • No. 6: Frances Ha

If there were any fairness in the Academy Award nominations, Meryl Streep would not have gotten nominated for existing and being in a movie and Greta Gerwig would have been a serious contender (Cate Blanchett probably should have won anyway, but still). For some, this was their introduction to Gerwig as a serious talent; for the rest of us, this is further validation of her presence as the brightest young actress working. As the aimless and irresponsible Frances, Gerwig dances, fake-fights, gets bored, works as a secretary, rooms with two dudes, and runs around with her arms flailing. She never stops showing the loneliness of this character, even when she’s crazy energetic. And even though the movie is about a woman wandering and often failing, it’s a really happy move, largely because of that spirit. Gerwig co-wrote with her director and new boyfriend and normally sad-sackian Noah Baumbach, and it has the same style and energy as its protagonist.

  • No. 5: The Wolf of Wall Street

Many loathed the way Martin Scorsese made us sympathize with robber baron Jordan Belfort. But I find it key to his deployment of one of the most classic elements of American mythos – the Horatio Alger story – and the familiar narrative constructions of Goodfellas and Casino, to which this film ends (although hopefully not) a trilogy. With the same rise and fall structure, the same stylistic excess, Scorsese equates the junk bond-hawkers with the mafia. If we like Jordan, it’s because we like this kind of story, and Scorsese invites us to identify with him only to question and be challenged by the way this narrative works when it involves such reprehensible dealings. The best argument against the movie comes from my friend Porter, who claims that the FBI’s plot against Jordan is a fantasy of good ol’ Federal containment at its best – here comes the cavalry! – and he has a point. But we have to be reminded that this is Jordan’s story: unlike Goodfellas and Casino, the narrative never shifts. He’s telling us how he got away with it and how he can be caught, and the awkwardly rhetorical and confessional nature of his story gets carried away with all his bragging and posturing. Remember that the title “The Wolf of Wall Street” comes from a Forbes article about him. This is Belfort’s attempt to control the story, which he often fails to do. It’s also one of the funniest movies of the year: at times, the visual language recalls and DiCaprio’s physical performance recalls the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s.

  • No. 4: Her

Wistful, sweet, and visually inventive, Her is the movie for our technological moment (just as Computer Chess is the movie for our technological past). Spike Jonze takes the concept seriously, rather than constantly reminding us of the cleverness. In addition to Theodore Twombly and “Samantha,” the film meditates on all kinds of relationships, not merely with technology. After all, Theodore writes letters not only out of obligation, but also because it allows him a virtual window into a meaningful connection. The characters are not vehicles for philosophy or the high concept, but are finely drawn and often interesting crack the narrative and visual framework. Her presents a largely clean and aseptic utopia in which we’ve all accepted that computers can solve our problems, then turns that on its head by giving computers emerging problems of their own. In that way, the movie it should be compared to (and never is) to The Terminator: in both, we see the clash between controlling and being controlled by non-human forms of consciousness. Its sweetness comes from the great Arcade Fire score, Joaquin Phoenix’ toning down his manic force into shy neediness, and Amy Adams’ warmth.

  •  No. 3: 12 Years a Slave

Attacked by some as Oscar-bait; they couldn’t be more wrong, even if it dominated those awards discussions. This is an intense, provocative look at a subject that isn’t usually filmed. As a film subject, slavery often gets unfairly lumped with civil rights era movies, of which there are many. But the last significant movie to address slavery seriously (other than Django Unchained, which is an action movie) was Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Beloved. The film doesn’t pull punches on the brutality, and captures the powerlessness of slaves. In fact, a consistent criticism of the film is that (spoiler) a white man ensures Solomon’s slavery. But that’s part of the point: Solomon’s escape doesn’t come so much through his own courage or agency as endurance and even participation in these senseless and indefensible conditions. His only chance at freedom is through someone who isn’t defined as “property” – this comes straight out of Northup’s book. The movie avoids speechifying or overly virtuous representations. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings the right mix of stoic resolve and suppressed anger to Solomon. As the movie ends, we’re told more grim facts about his life and failed attempts to bring about justice to those who sold him into slavery. Part of me wishes McQueen had filmed this too. This is a dark, necessary movie.

  • No. 2: Computer Chess

Mumblecore godfather Andrew Bujalski took a risk with this loopy, often absurd, frequently hilarious look at a bunch of nerds in the early 80s playing chess through their computers. I’m reminded of that bit in the Simpsons bit with the “Grand Nationals of Sand Castle Building Preview” where an announcer, says, “You know, this year, everyone’s abuzz about one thing: the absence of Mark Rodkin . . . oh wait, there he is.” In a way, Computer Chess is like turning that line into a movie. The result is that Computer Chess has the dramatic urgency of a sports movie, which is made all the more compelling once we accept the sense of seriousness and inevitable celebrities that can only exist within this weird culture. But the like Her, it’s a meditation on mediation and identity and the way all that changes when we explore and attempt to think about technology on a deeper level. The film’s DIY style meshes perfectly with subject; this is no art movie, it’s the one of the most entertaining movies of recent memory.

  • No. 1: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ best work in years (which is saying a lot) once again captures a milieu with a mix of artificial regionalism and naturalistic realism. Its bleakness is offset by the hopefulness of the music, and the Coens show the way it became a part of business and commercial interests and could not be contained by it. Played by Oscar Isaac in what I think is the year’s best performance (he sings!), Llewyn is kind of a jerk, but he’s also floundering and lost and trying to make a life through the integrity he refuses to give up. Even though the Coens make him suffer, they still like him. All the performances are great, and the film is a funny and loving pastiche of beat and folk cultures. This scene might be my favorite and the funniest of any movie this year:

The aesthetic riffs on the cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but the glorious style extends to road-side diners and academic’s apartments. The mix of hope and misery made it seem schizophrenic to some, but I was compelled every step of the way.

 

A Philip Seymour Hoffman Clip Retrospective

It’s interesting to think about the kinds of careers Philip Seymour Hoffman could have had. You wonder what would have happened if he had started his career on Saturday Night Live because he was so funny. He was the best thing about the banal and depressing rom-com Along Came Polly, playing a character who should have occupied his own movie – a former teen star who shouts “let it reign” whenever he shoots a basketball.

And in case you think this is a one-off, this extra from the DVD of Punch-Drunk Love has to be seen:

Hoffman had an element of Falstaff’s ridiculous and dramatic grandeur to him: it’s a shame he never got a chance to play him. His characters were shaggy, rotund, frequently drunken, and in love with himself. There’s an element of this, however submerged and sophisticated, in Capote and The Master. In the latter, he’s a guru who likes a little rubbing alcohol in his orange juice. But it’s nowhere better than Almost Famous, probably the signature role of a guy who made many, many great films. As Lester Bangs, he’s a manic junkie on life, a goofball scenester who’s smarter than you. Since I’ve read two books of Bangs’ music reviews, I can confirm that he’s internalized every aspect of what made his prose great.

As Matt Zoller Seitz writes in this touching retrospective, Hoffman was remarkable at playing  smug, privileged, and self-righteous. In one of his first roles, he plays “George Willis Jr.” in Scent of a Woman, the cocky rich snot who manipulates Chris O’Donnell’s scholarship kid. O’Donnell’s performance is so wooden and unformed that it requires young “Philip S. Hoffman” to make him sympathetic by contrast and to give us any chance of caring about such a cipher. He brought this sociopathic sense of disdain and bemusement to roles like Mission Impossible III that might have otherwise been a throwaway. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, he gives the most unique performance of his career as a guy who lives in a weird and dangerous space between desperation and absurd self-confidence.

His great movies will be revisited over and over in the coming weeks. We’ll hear much about his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, for reasons that don’t need to be explained here. But there’s three that no one ever talks about anymore. In David Mamet’s underrated if somewhat pompous 2000 satire State and Main, Hoffman plays a screenwriter who grows increasingly frustrated by the system. Amongst a bunch of lifetimers great at gaming the system, his frumpled confusion makes him the audience surrogate. While a bunch of other great actors (Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, David Paymer) are playing Hollywood types, Hoffman plays a living, breathing human who doesn’t realize he’s being chewed up and spit out. In this scene, he responds to phoniness not with more phoniness, but with exhaustion and bewilderment.

In  2003’s Owning Mahowny, he plays a gambling addict driven by no other need than his compulsion. In every scene, he’s thinking about the money he can win. Cinematic gambling has rarely looked so seedy, joyless, and workmanlike. The most compelling aspect of his performance is that we realize what he realizes, which is that his addiction is the only thing that makes him interesting. Though he had been great in supporting roles, this is one of the first times he’d ever owned a movie:

But Love Liza, I would argue, is the movie that captures everything you love about Hoffman. It’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t always work. Directed by actor Todd Louiso, written by Hoffman’s brother, it’s a film about a guy who responds to his wife’s suicide by sniffing copious amounts of gasoline. Ideally, it’s a movie about grief and reflection, but it’s impossible to get past that strange premise (which seems kind of gimmicky). Love Liza is a difficult movie to watch; I seem to remember it was marketed as a comedy, when it’s really another dark movie about addiction.

Nonetheless, Hoffman invests this inarticulate, emotionally detached loner with his trademark mix of sympathy and arrogance, and it’s a thing to behold. This is the most cliché statement you can make about an actor, but I have no idea how he goes there and how he makes this work. He refuses to let us laugh at his glue-tripping, and yet we also never feel totally sorry for his bad behavior.

I’ll close with Roger Ebert’s description of the performance:. It makes me kind of emotional reading through it.

“There is a kind of attentive concern that Hoffman brings to his characters, as if he has been giving them private lessons, and now it is time for their first public recital. Whether or not they are ready, it can be put off no longer, and so here they are, trembling and blinking, wondering why everyone else seems to know the music.”

(After I finished this, I remembered his sad, thoughtful role in 25th Hour. God this guy was something else).