Wes Anderson Met the Right People Early On

From the very beginning, Wes Anderson had a distinct talent and voice. In his first film Bottle Rocket it’s there in nascent form and it fully blooms in his next effort, Rushmore. The obsessive symmetry, the deadpan humor, the tidy visuals, the mood-setting 60s pop songs, it’s all what we have come to recognize as a Wes Anderson picture. But without a few strokes of luck in his 20s, his career could’ve played out differently.

As I’ve been reading through Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection, a treasure-trove of essays, pictures, drawings, and interviews from Anderson’s career thus far, one of my big takeaways has been Anderson’s good fortune in meeting the right people early on.

When Owen Met Wes…

It all started at the University of Texas in the late 1980s, where Anderson and Owen Wilson were in a playwriting class together. One day, Wilson just walked up to Anderson out of nowhere in a hallway outside class. I’ll let Anderson take it away:

“We were signing up for classes for the next semester, and he started asking me to help him figure out what he should do, as if we knew each other. As if we had ever spoken before or knew each other’s names. I almost feel like he was taking it for granted that if we didn’t know each other yet, soon we would.”

You can picture this scene. Owen Wilson, the affable and outgoing goofball, approaching the more reserved Wes Anderson with an assumption the two would become fast friends. In the next few years, they would begin writing and shooting their first film, Bottle Rocket. They released the short in 1994 and then the feature-length movie in 1996.

In it, Wilson plays Dignan, an ambitious small-time crook who plans a robbery with his friends. It’s clearly evident from Bottle Rocket that Wilson should be a star. He has that magnetic charisma that only people born to be on screen possess. It’s hard to believe it’s his first role. How lucky for Anderson that he had such a talent collaborating with him from the start. Before long, Wilson would become a full-fledged comic movie star, recognized more for Zoolander, Meet the Parents, and Wedding Crashers than any of his roles in Anderson’s films.

An Oscar Winner In His Corner

When you’re an unknown trying to get your movie made, even more important than a captivating star is a well-respected Hollywood producer who can make things happen. For Wes Anderson, that was writer-director James L. Brooks, who had been Oscar-recognized for his films Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets.

Anderson and the Wilsons met Brooks through a friend of a friend of a friend, and the Hollywood vet clearly saw something in their little indie project. Brooks’ movies are nothing like Anderson’s, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He did everything he could to get their movie made — and made it was with Brooks as executive producer.

Even though Bottle Rocket didn’t get into any festivals, it at least had the chance to see the light of day. Without Brooks, there’s no assurance that ever happens. Who knows how Anderson and the Wilsons’ careers change if they can’t get their first project off the ground.

As Anderson says in the book, “Frankly, we love Jim.”

“He didn’t have any reason to trust me”

Who knows why the immortal Bill Murray does what he does. The man is a national treasure who cannot be questioned. But I think even Wes Anderson wonders why Murray agreed to be in his second film Rushmore in 1998.

As Bottle Rocket wasn’t exactly a smashing success, Anderson’s team had almost no money for their next picture. Still, they reached out to Murray with the script for Rushmore and, to their shock, he said yes. In the book, Anderson says Murray did the movie for $9,000 (!), which is essentially pro bono for an actor of his standing. That’s not all, though. When they ran out of money before they could get a helicopter shot they wanted, Murray gave him a check for $25,000 so they could shoot it. Anderson still seems amazed by all this:

“He had no reason to be particularly nice to us. He’d never seen Bottle Rocket. I don’t think he’s seen it still. He didn’t have any reason to trust me. But he did trust me.”

Once on set, the two men clicked and began a long working relationship that has bolstered both of their careers (Murray’s been in every one of Anderson’s films since). Murray was able to tap into the kind of comedic, yet melancholy sad-sack role that has defined his older years. For Anderson, he’s been lucky enough to be connected to a comedy legend for almost his entire career.

By the time he made The Royal Tenenbaums, just his third film, it seemed like every star wanted to be in a Wes Anderson picture. In addition to Owen and Luke Wilson and Bill Murray, that film featured Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, and Alec Baldwin. He had officially arrived.

The point of this is not to claim that Wes Anderson is some lucky hack. If Anderson didn’t show serious talent and promise at such a young age, the Wilsons, James L. Brooks, and Bill Murray wouldn’t have believed in him the way they did. To me their help just highlights the fact that even the most singular-minded filmmakers, the ones that seem born to make movies, still need quite a push before they get going.

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The If I Had An Orchard 20: My Favorite Film, TV, and Music of 2017

As shows and movies pile up on my Netflix queue and I have less time to get to the theaters these days, I decided against doing a year-end Top 10 Movies or Top 10 TV Shows of 2017. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense if half the shows or movies I saw this year make the final list. Thus, I’m mashing it all together and doing my top 20 favorite pieces of culture in 2017.

This list will feature the movies, shows, and music that was most impactful and memorable to me this past year. Yes, weighing Get Out against, say, Lorde’s Melodrama is a strange endeavor, but that’s what makes this fun. Let’s get on with it.

  1. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2

Before 2015, Chris Stapleton spent most of this century writing songs for other people, including country stars like Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Tim McGraw, and more. That’s a nice way to make a living, unless you’re blessed with a booming, goosebump-inducing voice. A couple years ago, Stapleton released Traveller, his debut album that went double platinum and earned him Grammy love. He became known as the throwback outlaw type that was actually accepted by the country music industry, probably because he wrote a lot of their songs.

Stapleton returned this year with From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2, two separate half-hour records filled with terrific country tunes that sound nothing like the quasi-rapping, overly sentimental stuff you hear on mainstream country radio. Hard-charging barn burners like “Second One to Know” and “Midnight Train to Memphis” will stop you in your tracks, while slower ballads like “Either Way” show off Stapleton’s powerhouse pipes, always brimming with utter conviction.

The content on From A Room (heavy-drinking man reflects on love, family, and how to live) isn’t all that original, but the music’s strength comes from its simplicity and honesty. Lines like “People call me the Picasso of paintin’ the town” and “We go to work, go to church, fake the perfect life” feel ten times more authentic coming from Stapleton than they would almost any other country artist.

  1. GLOW

Of all the new shows I saw this year, Netflix’s GLOW is the one that is built to run for several seasons. With a never-better Alison Brie at the center, GLOW (that’s Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, if you were wondering) features a hysterical ensemble cast of weirdos, outcasts, and losers. It’s the lovable ragtag group that you love to cheer for. In only ten half-hour episodes, this show was able to give us at least a handful of fully realized characters to be invested in. Marc Maron, in particular, is tremendous as the coked-up sad-sack director that you can’t help but feel for. Not everything GLOW tried worked out, but it was the funniest show I watched this year. It’s been renewed for season 2 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s around for awhile.

  1. The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani’s hilarious and heartfelt real-life story, co-written with his wife Emily Gordon, has to be the year’s biggest non-Get Out surprise. Who could have expected this little cross-cultural rom-com to make over $42 million at the box office? There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments amidst a story that draws you in with its smart writing and lived-in performances. Speaking of, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are a delight to watch here. Although it may run a bit too long, I wasn’t mad that I spent two hours with Romano, Hunter, Zoe Kazan, and Kumail, who I wasn’t familiar with before The Big Sick. I’m ready for more of him now.

  1. Ozark

The best pulpy summer TV show I didn’t know I wanted, Ozark was not the most original thing I saw this year, but it could have been the most entertaining. For a show that closely followed the male anti-hero format, Ozark differentiated itself with its setting and pace.

Set on the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, the show depicts a rural environment that we don’t usually see on TV (although apparently True Detective’s third season will also take place in the Ozarks): a tourist town in the summer that is all but abandoned the rest of the year. Our protagonist Marty Byrde, a money-laundering financial advisor from Chicago, has to navigate this terrain, which isn’t so easy when the locals already have a drug operation set up. The smartest thing Ozark does is skip all of the background on how Marty got involved with the cartel (Breaking Bad already did that) and plunge us head-first into the action. This show moves fast, which means it has some credibility-stretching moments, as well as some painful dialogue. There’s hardly any likable characters here at all; still, Ozark remains inherently watchable. This might not make any sense, but to paraphrase The Ringer’s The Watch podcast, Ozark is probably not a good show, but it also just might be great.

  1. Win It All

I’ve always enjoyed the work of indie writer-director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire) and actor Jake Johnson (Nick from New Girl), so Win It All was right up my alley. Swanberg makes small, low-budget fare that usually makes for pleasant, although not life-changing viewing. You have to respect his proficiency (he typically releases one movie a year and has a show on Netflix called Easy) and his ability to pull real emotion from small “low stakes” settings.

Win It All is premised on a couple of simple, yet enduring genres: The poker movie and the “bag of money” movie. It follows Eddie (Jake Johnson) as he is given a duffel bag of cash to store away for an incarcerated friend. The problem is Eddie is a compulsive gambler. Thanks to Johnson’s likable performance, I really felt for Eddie, despite his poor decision-making. You’re living and dying with him throughout his arc as he loses obscene amounts of money to gambling, tries to get his life in order, and then has to go back to the poker table in order to win it all back. Like all Swanberg films, it’s funny but not hysterically so, dramatic but not self-serious.

  1. SZA – Ctrl

Deeply personal and endlessly listenable, SZA’s Ctrl continually grew on me during the year. Over lovely minimalist R&B, the singer gets achingly vulnerable, candidly and daringly airing out her neediness and imperfections throughout the album with lyrics like “I hope you never find out who I really am” and “Do you even know I’m alive?” On tracks like “Drew Barrymore” and “The Weekend,” you realize you might be listening to a really special new artist. She gets a little help from Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, but all in all, Ctrl is SZA’s show. And she’s not afraid to be its flawed and human star.

  1. Fargo (Season 3)

First, a disclaimer: The second season of FX’s Fargo was maybe my favorite season of television ever. I’m such a sucker for Fargo’s style (the movie and show): a quirky crime saga peppered with dark humor. So when the third season debuted earlier this year, I tried to temper my expectations a bit after the first two seasons knocked me off my feet. In the season 3 premiere, a character named Nikki Swango (that’s a TV Hall of Fame name right there) uses an A/C window unit as a murder weapon. Needless to say, I was hooked on Fargo again.

Sure, this season didn’t have the ambition or execution of past seasons. Its characters were not quite as memorable, despite a fantastic cast headlined by Ewan McGregor (playing twins), Carrie Coon, and David Thewlis, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Swango stealing the show. Even if this is the weakest of Fargo’s three seasons, it was, as always, eccentric and entertaining and super compelling. In interviews, series showrunner Noah Hawley sounded uncertain about making another season. That’s unfortunate, because three years in, this show has become appointment viewing for me.

  1. Get Out

When I finally got around to seeing Get Out, the hype for Jordan Peele’s black horror/comedy had risen to unimaginable heights. With a budget under $5 million, it had made over $175 million at the box office and been praised to the rafters by every critic in America. With expectations this sky-high, I could only be (at least slightly) disappointed. One of my biggest regrets from this year in culture is not going to see it on opening night. The neutral expectations and full theater would’ve made my Get Out experience unforgettable. Even with my tepid enthusiasm after watching it on my couch, this is the type of film we need way more of — the kind of thriller that works as both unsettling entertainment and incisive social criticism.

  1. Narcos (Season 3)

After the first two seasons of Narcos followed Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall, there was doubt that the next season could remain as compelling without Don Pablo. As season three progressed it quickly became clear that this was not just the Escobar Show. Narcos had cooked up more quality product for us. This endlessly entertaining show is not afraid to be pulp history. It educates you with sensational doses of violence and politics.

The action this time follows the Cali cartel, which picks up where Escobar left off in drug-corrupted Colombia. Wagner Moura (Escobar) and Boyd Holbrook (DEA agent Steve Murphy) are gone, but Pedro Pascal is still doing fantastic work as agent Javier Pena, while the third season’s new characters give us interesting arcs to follow. However, what makes this show special is that it’s shot on location in beautiful Colombia’s impossibly green countryside or its narrow, claustrophobic streets. In a tragic development, a location scout was murdered in Mexico while finding spots to shoot season four. It’s suspected that the killing was cartel-related, which complicates our experience as viewers. While we enjoyably consume this kind of entertainment, the drug war rages on outside our living rooms.

  1. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

We waited a long time for the Fleet Foxes to return — six years, to be exact. Robin Pecknold and his band took a hiatus to take college courses and figure some stuff out. Crack-Up, their third LP, is less immediate than the first two albums. Its lyrics are more opaque and obscure; there’s no rousing anthems a la “Helplessness Blues” here. But it breaks new ground for them in fascinating ways.

Everything about Crack-Up is purposeful and inspired, from the album title taken from a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story to that gorgeous album cover of a Japanese coast. There are moments on here that are just as sublime and arresting and beautiful as that cover image: The mid-song tempo change of “On Another Ocean,” most of “- Naiads, Cassadies,” and the chorus of “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me.” Crack-Up is an essential album about your life cracking apart in frightening and revelatory ways. Let’s hope they don’t disappear for another six years.

  1. Stranger Things 2

How do you build off a surprise hit? Stranger Things co-creators the Duffer brothers found a way in their second season. They went bigger and bolder, sure, but they also brought back what made us fall in love with the first season. Before the carnage that would come at the end, we got to spend time with the gang at the arcade, watch them trick or treat in Ghostbusters costumes, and be totally delighted by the interplay between Steve and Dustin.

Stranger Things 2 had its weaknesses, of course: Notably, the “Lost Sister” episode and whatever they were doing with Billy’s character. Overall, this season worked for me, though. Bob “the Brain” and Mad Max were inspired additions to the cast. The last two episodes were dark, thrilling, and, most importantly, satisfying, particularly the last scene at the school dance. For such a nostalgic and charming show, there was deep trauma running through this season that made for riveting drama.

  1. Lorde – Melodrama

Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde, just turned 21. This fact astounds me. Earlier this year, she released Melodrama, the follow-up to her debut smash Pure Heroine. It’s hard to believe she just reached legal drinking age when her writing is so impeccable. Lyrics like “Summer slipped us underneath her tongue” and “It’s just another graceless night” are evocative and cliche-free. Where did she get her youthful wisdom and sense of perspective?

Lorde allows more color to seep into her music on Melodrama. It’s brighter and more upbeat (“We were wild and fluorescent / Come home to my heart”). It’s all killer and no filler. My standouts (“The Louvre,” “Supercut,” and “Sober II,” for what it’s worth) may be different than your favorites. This record sweeps us up into Lorde’s infectious nightlife and then, inevitably, exposes us to the cold morning light the next day. What Lorde does on Melodrama reminds us that pop savants like her are all too rare.

  1. Big Little Lies

In hindsight, how could this not have been entertaining? You get a bunch of movie stars together, film them in luxurious California beachfront homes, have them sip wine and trade gossip, throw in a murder mystery for good measure, and watch the ratings for your TV program soar. But HBO’s Big Little Lies was more than that. It was elevated by committed star performances and Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) confident direction into one of the most entertaining and delightful watches of the year.

You can tell every actor involved is not just here to pick up a paycheck. Reese Witherspoon coolly owns the first half of the seven-episode run before the show shifts focus to Nicole Kidman’s emotionally raw performance. Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, and Adam Scott all provide compelling supporting turns to build out the scandalous Monterey, California community of Big Little Lies. At times, the rich-mom melodrama almost strays into self-parody, but overall, Vallee, who directed all seven episodes, keeps our attention on the complex relationships and the murder we know is coming. Also, shouts to the nine-year-old daughter with a young adult’s music taste for soundtracking the show.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Matt Zoller Seitz over at RogerEbert.com put it well: “How many Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, Imperial walkers, lightsabers, escape pods, and discussions of the nature of The Force have we seen by now? Oodles. But Johnson manages to find a way to present the technology, mythology and imagery in a way that makes it feel new.”

Before the release of The Last Jedi, the pressure on writer-director Rian Johnson was heavier than Jabba the Hutt, and, polarizing fan reaction aside, he came through in the clutch. His Star Wars movie is narratively bold and visually magnificent. 

Johnson reveres this franchise, but he’s not afraid to break things and surprise people. Of course, he’s assisted by wildly charismatic young actors, such as Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega, and graceful veterans, like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (RIP). Despite its two and a half hour runtime, this movie is riveting and complex throughout. I already can’t wait to see it again.

  1. Mindhunter

It’s hard to watch Mindhunter and not recall Zodiac and Se7en, David Fincher’s other serial killer studies. His Netflix show has the look of Zodiac, but the feel of those scenes in Se7en when the detectives (played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) are conversing with Kevin Spacey’s serene psychopath John Doe. Mindhunter’s intensity comes not from fast-paced action or grisly violence, but from simply sitting across from a mass murderer in a jail cell.

Holden and Tench, the FBI agents here, have wonderful chemistry that makes this show an easier watch than it should be, and Mindhunter visibly benefits from Fincher directing four of the ten episodes (that second episode travel montage is a masterclass). For a show with such a measured pace throughout, the end of the season fully arrests you with its tension-filled, Led Zeppelin-soundtracked climax. No show this year had me hanging on every line of dialogue like this one.

  1. Blade Runner 2049

Here we have the rare sequel that actually improves on the original. Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi visionary Blade Runner is easier to admire than truly love, and this year’s Blade Runner 2049 revived its world with layered storytelling and majestic visuals. This is, without hyperbole, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins have created a visual feast on screen that is bold, inventive, and sumptuous. Literally every other shot is jaw-dropping. Besides Dunkirk, this was the best theater experience I had this year.

The story doesn’t 100% work, but plot isn’t even one of the top 5 most interesting things about Blade Runner 2049. The performances are fascinating. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as a new type of “blade runner,” Harrison Ford impressively updates his classic sci-fi protagonist Rick Deckard, Robin Wright is so good she should probably be given a supporting role in every movie, and, as always, I’m not quite sure what Jared Leto is doing. This movie could have gone very wrong, but Villeneuve wouldn’t let it. Instead, we got a rich text that delves into what makes us human and what gives us a soul. It’s heady, heavy stuff on a gorgeous canvas.

  1. Lady Bird

Lady Bird is the rare movie that you would recommend to anyone. Sharply written with specificity and warmth, first-time writer-director Greta Gerwig discovers the perfect balance of levity and gravity in her coming-of-age dramedy. This is a “last days of adolescence” movie that doesn’t treat high school as a melodrama. Saoirse Ronan is the titular Lady Bird, and she carries the film as a character that is easy to love despite her youthful errors. We follow her throughout her senior year of high school in Sacramento (or, as she calls it, the “Midwest of California”) as she falls in love, fights with her mom (a note-perfect Laurie Metcalf), and longs to attend college on the East Coast (“where writers live in the woods”).

The humor is less uproarious belly laughs and more clever little moments that will surely seem even funnier on a repeat viewing. Lady Bird is so generous with all its characters, even the ones that could be made into caricatures in a lesser movie. And despite the light touch, Gerwig’s script deals thoughtfully with class, socioeconomic status, and parenting. Recalling Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and some of her boyfriend Noah Baumbach’s best work, Gerwig’s Lady Bird ultimately sets itself apart as a love letter to home, where we all begin to form who we will become.

  1. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

I don’t know how they do it, but The War On Drugs are so clearly inspired by past artists but still manage to create something that feels fresh and exhilarating. Their 2014 release, Lost in the Dream, was far and away my favorite album of that year. So when A Deeper Understanding dropped this year, I tried to keep my expectations mild. You can’t expect a band to top themselves every time, right?

A Deeper Understanding is a bigger budget version of their previous work. Tracks like “Holding On” (my song of the year) and “Nothing To Find” are catchier and hit harder. Everything sounds just slightly more expensive. However, leveling up doesn’t mean they have lost what makes them great. They still riff off the likes of Springsteen, Petty, and Dire Straits without sounding like a cover band. They still have that shaggy, laid-back vibe on “Thinking Of A Place” and “Knocked Down.” I’m frequently discovering new avenues and backroads to explore on each listen of this dense, exceptional album.

  1. Dunkirk

In a genre as well-trod as the war movie, Christopher Nolan found his own way into this rarely depicted World War II story, unfurling three timelines as an innovative technique to portray the battle of Dunkirk. But that’s not what you remember most about seeing Dunkirk. What remains with you is the white-knuckle suspense, the experience Nolan creates that drops you in the middle of the chaotic, deadly fray. There’s no generals strategizing in front of a map. No soldier repeatedly taking out a folded-up photo of their wife/family from their pocket. Just stark shots of a French beach and British soldiers desperately trying to survive. This is a different type of war movie, a thrilling and lean survival story that felt fresh amid a summer movie slate of overly familiar sequels and franchises. From Nolan’s widescreen splendor to Hans Zimmer’s cracking score, Dunkirk is as pure a survival story as you’re likely to see.

  1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

How lucky are we to be alive while Kendrick Lamar Duckworth makes music? With good kid, m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and now DAMN., I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we just witnessed one of the best three-album runs in hip-hop history. Almost everything about these three records is exhilarating, thoughtful, and virtuosic. I thought there was no way Kendrick could improve upon the jazz-inflected insight of To Pimp a Butterfly, but after DAMN., I had to, yet again, reconsider what was his best work.

There’s something for everyone on DAMN.: Ferocious, mile-a-minute bars (DNA), pop-star collab (LOYALTY), tender and catchy love song (LOVE), introspective rumination (FEAR). It may simultaneously be his most accessible work and also his most challenging. Although it runs through all of his music, what I found most perceptive about DAMN. was the careful contemplation of sin and redemption, both personal and societal. Kendrick has a way of examining religion and his own faith like no other artist right now. The rest of us are just thanking God that we get to watch him at work.

And my full lists:

Top 5 TV Shows

  1. Mindhunter
  2. Big Little Lies
  3. Stranger Things 2
  4. Narcos
  5. Fargo

Top 10 Movies

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Lady Bird
  3. Blade Runner 2049
  4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  5. Get Out
  6. Win It All
  7. The Big Sick
  8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  9. Logan
  10. Baby Driver

Top 10 Albums

  1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
  2. A Deeper Understanding – The War On Drugs
  3. Melodrama – Lorde
  4. Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes
  5. Ctrl – SZA
  6. From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2 – Chris Stapleton
  7. Painted Ruins – Grizzly Bear
  8. Capture – Thunder Dreamer
  9. Sleep Well Beast – The National
  10. Something to Tell You – HAIM

The Class of 2007: Profits vs. Prophets in There Will Be Blood

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 8 (2 wins)

Domestic box office: $40,222,514 (66th highest-grossing of 2007)

What the critics said: “There Will Be Blood is genuinely widescreen, both in its mise-en-scéne and concern with American values—God, oil, family—that have hardly receded into the mist. This story of profits versus prophets could also be articulated as a death-struggle identification between the two.” – J. Hoberman, Village Voice

“So, ladies and gentlemen, if I say I’m an oil man, you will agree.” One of the very first lines of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterwork, reveals what kind of a protagonist we’re dealing with here — the kind that will plainly tell us that we agree with him.

The speaker is Daniel Plainview, the merciless and highly successful oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Essentially, Plainview is embodying capitalism in the film as he relentlessly buys up land to suck oil from the earth. Paul Dano is Eli Sunday, a fraudulent preacher looking to make money off Plainview to build his church — and his own influence. Capitalism vs. religion in America. You can’t say the eccentric and extraordinary There Will Be Blood doesn’t go for it all.

Back in 2007, PTA was known more as an exciting young(ish) director than the universally revered filmmaker that we see today. His most recent picture at the time was 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, an unevenly received Adam Sandler “comedy” (in quotes because it’s so much more — and weirder — than that). It felt like a minor work compared to sprawling, ambitious movies like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. For PTA fans, it had to feel like he still had a masterpiece in him, another level he could reach. When he wrote a script loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! and got Daniel Day-Lewis to sign on right away, that potential masterpiece began to take shape.

Day-Lewis is considered perhaps our Greatest Living Actor, and yet, his entire film and TV career spans just 29 credits. In 2007, he had only appeared in two films since 1997, Gangs of New York (as the brutal and unforgettable Bill The Butcher) and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (his wife Rebecca Miller’s movie). What was he doing during the years in between jobs? Being a Method actor, that’s what. Day-Lewis committed to There Will Be Blood two years before production began, so he had plenty of time to get all Method-y. There are no stories of him working in oil rig for ten months, but he did copious amounts of research on turn-of-the-century oilmen, like Edward Doheny, whom Sinclair’s Oil! is based on. Once on set, he reportedly disappeared entirely into Daniel Plainview, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview

Even knowing the talented PTA and the well-respected Day-Lewis were involved couldn’t have prepared you for the bravura 14-minute wordless introduction. Boldly recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s opening, PTA presents a dry, empty California landscape set to Jonny Greenwood’s ominously droning score. And then we’re off, following the maniacally driven Plainview as he discovers oil and sets up his first drill. When we see them strike oil, the thick inky substance whips the camera lens, a father dots his baby’s forehead with it, the stuff is everywhere. Almost immediately after Plainview first tastes success, a man is killed on the job, which should be a sign that the violence is only just beginning. Plainview adopts the dead man’s son and we finally hear the first lines of dialogue (“If I say I’m an oil man…”).

That opening tips us off that PTA is shooting this film unlike anything he’s done before, or anyone’s done before, really. He utilizes the wide shot constantly, composing serene widescreen views of barren land, his characters barely filling the frame. He also uses an abundance of close-ups on his two passionate main characters’ faces. PTA edits it at such a measured pace too. On average, each shot is just over 13 seconds, which is an eternity compared to modern Hollywood movies. This helps There Will Be Blood feel timeless in a way that is difficult to replicate, because most directors can’t keep things interesting without quicker editing.

Of course, everything isn’t nearly as interesting without that grand, sinister score. It’s one of the most easily identifiable film scores to date, so alien and disorienting for our ears the first time we hear it. It should be no surprise the composer is Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood, but it may be a surprise that this was his first work on a feature film. How is it possible to create something this magnificent on your first try? When legendary composer Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Inception) was asked what score stood out to him most in the last decade, he cited There Will Be Blood, saying it was “recklessly, crazily beautiful.” Don’t get me wrong: This film could be set to silence and it would be one of the better movies of 2007, but after you hear its score, it becomes indispensable. You can’t imagine the film without it.

But let’s get back to the central conflict at stake here between capitalism and religion, between God and money. Plainview’s rival is Eli Sunday, whom Dano plays as a sniveling con man pastor. Eli shows financial inclinations almost immediately after we meet him, when Plainview is negotiating with his father about their land. Despite constantly referring to his “flock,” it’s easy to see Eli cares only for enriching himself. By the end, he’s morphed into a slick and smarmy wealthy radio preacher.

Plainview is just as awful as his religious counterpart. More is the only thing that motivates him: more land, more oil, more money. He will manipulate and screw over anyone in his way. He’s alarmingly misanthropic (“I look at people and see nothing worth liking”) and homicidally competitive (“I want no one else to succeed”). He wants to make enough money where he can get away from people. Eventually, he gets his wish.

It’s unclear if he even loves his own adopted son, HW. In the penultimate scene, HW tells him about the drilling company he’s started in Mexico. “That makes you my competi-TOR,” Plainview snaps at him. In a gut-wrenching twist of the knife, he reveals that HW isn’t his biological son, barking that he’s a “bastard from a basket” as HW walks out.

What makes There Will Be Blood tick is that the interplay between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday works as both a personal character study and a symbolic societal one. On an intimate level, the clash of personalities between the two is captivating. On a big-picture level, unfettered greed and corrupt religion are two ugly sides of the same coin, the movie seems to be showing us, and both are deeply embedded in our nation’s past. The performances from Day-Lewis and Dano are large and showy for a reason.

However, even if you don’t watch There Will Be Blood with those themes in mind, this thing is just a remarkably engrossing, astonishing, and unforgettable ride. Think of all the iconic quotes and moments from this movie:

Get out of here ghost!
I’VE ABANDONED MY CHILD
Bastard from a basket!
I am a false prophet and God is a superstition
DRAAAAINAGE, Eli, you boy.
I… drink… your… milkshake! I DRINK IT UP!

These notable lines are imprinted in my brain, as is the entire baptism scene near the middle of the film and bowling scene at the end. These two scenes are in conversation with each other, revealing a power struggle that isn’t over until Plainview says “I’m finished.”

Ten years ago at the Academy Awards, There Will Be Blood went up against No Country for Old Men in a slugfest. No Country came out the big winner that day, sweeping up Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay over PTA’s masterpiece. Earlier this year, The New York Times ranked the 25 best films of the 21st century. The consensus choice was There Will Be Blood. It only makes sense the best this century has to offer would come from the year 2007. In the words of Daniel Plainview, “That was one hell of a show.”

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men

The Class of 2007: Fate and Unfathomable Evil in No Country for Old Men

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 8 (4 wins)

Domestic box office: $74,283,625 (36th highest-grossing of 2007)

What the critics said: “Mr. McCarthy’s book, for all its usual high-literary trappings (many philosophical digressions, no quotation marks), is one of his pulpier efforts, as well as one of his funniest. The Coens, seizing on the novel’s genre elements, lower the metaphysical temperature and amplify the material’s dark, rueful humor.” – A.O. Scott, New York Times

It was in August 2006 that the two best films of the following year met briefly in the small desert town of Marfa, Texas. Production overlapped there for a time, with the two film crews shooting in close proximity. So close, in fact, that the smoke from There Will Be Blood‘s oil derrick explosion scene forced directors Joel and Ethan Coen to suspend shooting for the day on their upcoming masterpiece, No Country for Old Men.

I don’t know why this little movie trivia factoid fascinates me so much. Perhaps it’s because less than two years later, these two films would face off at the Academy Awards, with the Coens’ work taking Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay over Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

Or perhaps it’s the irony that a movie that traffics so deeply in themes of fate and predestination seems like it was fated to cross paths with 2007’s other masterpiece. Fate or not, No Country for Old Men deserves to be appreciated on its own. After ten years, this movie still stuns me like Anton Chigurh’s cattle gun.

Before the film was released, pairing Cormac McCarthy’s stoic prose with the Coen brothers’ quirky sensibility seemed like a strange choice. It’s worth remembering exactly where the Coens were in their careers before No Country. They had an impressive run of respected work throughout the 1990s (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski), only to hit a bump in the road with a couple of disposable oddball comedies in 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers. With those two disappointments as their most recent work, they didn’t seem like the type to make a neo-Western masterwork in 2007.

Surprisingly, the Coens agreed to adapt McCarthy’s novel just months after it was published in 2005. It would be their first straight adaptation of a book (O, Brother Where Art Thou? was loosely inspired by Homer’s Odyssey).

While the Coens and Cormac may not have seemed like a natural fit at first, in hindsight it makes all the sense in the world. First of all, the Coens had done the “an incomprehensible evil invades an idyllic setting” type of movie before to great effect with Fargo and their first feature film Blood Simple. The latter is the better precursor to No Country, with its sun-scorched Texas background and noir influences. Second, some of McCarthy’s dialogue has a dark wit and humor to it that is rendered perfectly deadpan onscreen by the Coens. Lastly, McCarthy’s philosophizing on fate and predestination and evil is balanced out by the Coens’ sense of irony. The great American novelist from Tennessee and the cinema-obsessed brothers from Minnesota ended up complementing each other in fascinating ways.

One of the many things the Coens did flawlessly with No Country was the casting. I mean, every choice is sublime. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Josh Brolin gives career-best work as Llewelyn Moss, who foolishly takes the suitcase of money that sets off the plot. Kelly Macdonald and Woody Harrelson are memorable and well-cast in pivotal supporting roles. And then there’s Javier Bardem’s Chigurh, who will go down as an all-time great movie villain, which is no simple achievement, particularly with that haircut. Despite stellar acting all around, this is Bardem’s showcase.

When we’re first introduced to Chigurh, we see him strangling a police officer who just hung up the phone with some ominous last words: “I got it under control.” He doesn’t. Seconds later, Chigurh unleashes savage violence upon him, snuffing the officer’s life out with the expression of a deranged chipmunk. In the very next scene, we see Chigurh calmly pop a clean hole through a man’s head with his cattle gun just so he can take his car. Whether it’s with brute force or efficient marksmanship, witnessing Chigurh’s psychopathic capabilities right away leaves us terrified of what he will do next for the rest of the film.

However, the most fascinating scene featuring Chigurh isn’t a violent one. Quick question: “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”

The first time you see this you’re not sure whether to laugh or curl into the fetal position. I didn’t know you could refer to someone as “friend-o” with such pure menace. This is the scene where Chigurh’s philosophy starts to take shape. He’s an amoral, nihilistic monster that doesn’t believe in anything but random chance. When striving to understand the end of No Country, this becomes important.

Perhaps what makes Chigurh even more frightening is that the Coens don’t give us any musical cues as an emotional guide. No Country has a score, but it’s used so sparingly it might as well not be there at all. Especially in Chigurh’s scenes this becomes relevant to his outlook on life. As he delivers deadpan threats and kills with impunity, there is just an indifferent silence in the background, kind of like the cold, sound-less void of outer space.

What’s amazing is that, despite a minimalist score and a measured pace, No Country is still highly suspenseful, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. This is to the Coens’ credit. Ten years later, scenes like the Llewelyn-Chigurh hotel chase scene are as riveting as ever.

And then there’s that ending — confounding and frustrating to some, brilliant and timeless to others. I think it will continue to age like fine wine, unlike a more conventional ending. It’s not just that the assumed main character (Brolin’s Llewelyn) gets killed; that felt inevitable throughout the movie. It’s that it happens offscreen and it’s not even Chigurh who does it. Llewelyn thinks he can control his own fate and outrun what’s coming for us all, thus revealing the fool’s errand in humanity doing the same. This may feel like a nihilistic ending, one in line with Chigurh’s view of the universe as indifferent and random, adhering to the whims of a coin toss.

But then we get the final scene, where Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell recounts the dreams he had of his deceased father. In one of them, his father is riding horseback in the snow ahead of him carrying a fire in a horn. Bell says in the dream he knew his father was “goin’ on ahead, fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold.”

With each viewing, this ending becomes more powerful. After we just saw an unfathomable evil lead to the deaths of Llewelyn, (likely) his wife, and several others, and after that same evil escapes with with his life (and a gnarly broken arm), hope peaks out at the end of No Country. Even when the world cruelly seems like it’s dark and cold, we still have that yearning for the light and warmth that may be waiting for us beyond. Of course, the last line of the film is “And then I woke up,” which leads us to question if the fire amidst the dark and cold is real or an illusion. Is nothingness all there is? Or will we find that fire awaiting us?

This is part of why No Country for Old Men feels so timeless. Its philosophizing isn’t preachy or condescending, just unassuming and inquisitive. It sends you away with plenty to think about, while providing a gripping piece of entertainment along the way — exactly what great cinema is supposed to do.

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone
There Will Be Blood

The Class of 2007: The Affleck Comeback and Gone Baby Gone’s Unflinching Moral Ambiguity

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were improbably treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 1 (0 wins)

Domestic box office: $20,300,218 (108th highest-grossing movie of 2007)

What the critics said: “The unconvincing genre conventions in Gone Baby Gone are at odds with its authentic, lived-in atmosphere, but no one can say that Affleck hasn’t looked into the depths, and the movie ends on a resonantly ambiguous note” – David Denby

When Gone Baby Gone hit theaters in the fall of 2007, there was a similar refrain coming from critics and audiences alike: The guy who starred in Gigli is capable of this? 

Step back with me to 2003. Ben Affleck, not too far removed from Oscar glory for co-writing Good Will Hunting, appeared in the rom-com Gigli, widely considered one of the worst movies to ever grace our screens. Famously, Affleck fell in love with Jennifer Lopez on set, leading to the “Bennifer” media hysteria. Following the Gigli disaster, Affleck’s movies immediately took a nosedive. Surviving Christmas, Man About Town, Hollywoodland… stop me if you’ve seen (or even heard of!) any of these. You could say Affleck was lost in the wilderness for a few years there. He was an A-list celebrity who didn’t seem to make any good movies.

So you can imagine the pleasant surprise that accompanied Gone Baby Gone, his directorial debut. The Ben Affleck Comeback makes for a tidy narrative, but let’s not overlook this poignant film. In addition to Affleck’s influence, Gone Baby Gone has an authentic look, a few tremendous performances, and a remarkably ambiguous ending.

Set in present-day Boston, a little girl named Amanda McCready goes missing and her family (and negligent mother) hire two detectives, Casey Affleck’s Patrick Kenzie and Michelle Monaghan’s Angie Gennaro. A kidnapping is a classic movie premise, but Affleck and co. do little things to separate their film from others.

For instance, Ben Affleck’s direction is nothing flashy. There’s not too much wizardry involved here; he just lets his actors go to work, which is exactly what you would expect from an actor-turned-director. However, it’s the Boston he presents to us that makes his film so visually effective. Growing up there, he knew how to create the most authentic feel of working-class Boston possible. Gone Baby Gone doesn’t feel Hollywood-ized, in this sense. Affleck hired many non-actors, not just as extras, but speaking roles too. In the bars and on the street corners, you see and hear a gritty, unvarnished Boston. Over the last ten years, Boston has been even more thoroughly covered on screen, which you can mostly credit Affleck and Mark Wahlberg for. From The Fighter to The Town to Ted, the Boston movie has become its own cottage industry. Back in 2007, however, the accents and vibe of the Boston movie had not yet become overdone. Gone Baby Gone feels special in this way (much of 1997’s Good Will Hunting was not shot in Boston), like it set the stage for the raw, lived-in Boston we would see in subsequent films.

While it may feel authentic visually, the script doesn’t always reach those same heights. Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel by Affleck and Aaron Stockard, the author seems like a perfect fit for Affleck (he just adapted another Lehane book last year called Live By Night). At times, though, the screenplay becomes somehow both too thin and too convoluted.

As good as Monaghan is here, her part is grossly underwritten. It feels like we don’t know anything about her or her relationship with Patrick (Casey Affleck). Private detectives that are also dating seems like fertile ground for story, but when there is disagreement on what to do when Amanda is found, we don’t get a full picture of why they are coming from different places. The reverse problem is that the narrative gets too muddled to follow on a first viewing. In a flashback, we actually see a scenario play out that didn’t really happen, further confusing viewers. I’m not sure if there is one too many twists or if the plot just needed to be a little more streamlined, but it took me another watch to figure out what’s going on.

Ultimately, these issues don’t weigh too heavily on Gone Baby Gone, probably because there are a few performances that really shine. This was the first role that proved Casey Affleck could lead a good-to-great film. Ten years later, he’s an Academy Award winner for Best Actor, serving as the exclamation mark on a strange career. Previously known as “Ben’s brother Casey,” he had a memorable 2007, starring in Gone Baby Gone and further cementing himself as a solid supporting actor with another appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies and grabbing an Oscar nomination for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. After this, he didn’t appear in anything for two-plus years, before directing brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre experiment/prank I’m Still Here. Since then, Casey has been choosing his projects more selectively (multiple David Lowery films, Interstellar), before Matt Damon gifted him the lead in Manchester by the Sea.

Although Casey does an excellent job, the Gone Baby Gone performance that caught everyone’s attention was Amy Ryan as Amanda’s vulgar and irresponsible mother. To be sure, it’s a juicy role, but Ryan is tremendous in it. She’s an oncoming trainwreck, you know disaster is imminent but you can’t stop watching. Mostly a TV actress before, her Oscar nom was the only one Gone Baby Gone achieved that year, and her profile rose afterwards. Since then, she has continued to find work in worthwhile films like Win Win, Birdman, and Bridge of Spies. Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman didn’t need their profiles to rise any more, but they are predictably good, delivering nuance as compromised police officers.

What’s most impressive about this film is just that, the nuance and thoughtful moral ambiguity. When Casey Affleck’s detective Kenzie is confronted with an agonizing decision at the end (let Amanda live a happy, comfortable life or send her back to her neglectful mother), the movie doesn’t provide us an easy answer. I’ve seen it three times now, and each time I’m left shaken and ambivalent. I still don’t think I’ve decided which side of the fence I’ve fallen on. That’s the sign of an effective film.

Near the end, Kenzie has a conversation outside a hospital with Remy Bressant (Ed Harris’ cop) that is the film at its best. Bressant is drunkenly and forcefully explaining why he has (and will continue to) planted evidence on child molesters. If you touch a kid, it’s an easy decision to put you down, he says. Kenzie responds that “It don’t feel easy.” Gone Baby Gone is bleak, conflicting, and unafraid in the face of tough moral questions.

This is why it remains Ben Affleck’s best directed film, despite the thrilling action of The Town and the prestige entertainment of Oscar-winning Argo. From Gone Baby Gone forward, Affleck has continually proven that, yes, the guy who starred in Gigli is capable of this.

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Zodiac
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

The Class of 2007: Michael Clayton’s Restrained Brilliance

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were improbably treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 7 (1 win)

Domestic box office: $49,033,882 (55th highest-grossing movie of 2007)

What the critics said: “It’s not about the destination but the journey, and when the stakes become so high that lives and corporations are on the table, it’s spellbinding to watch the Clooney and Swinton characters eye to eye, raising each other, both convinced that the other is bluffing.” – Roger Ebert

Unlike No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, two masterpieces from 2007, Michael Clayton did not challenge or redefine cinema as we know it. However, it did make many adult moviegoers relieved that films like this could still get made. By that I mean grown-up, restrained genre thrillers. Michael Clayton is made with such confidence and directness that it is out of place among today’s crime/legal/political thrillers that go for cheap adrenaline rushes and sloppily-asserted “messages”. You might have to go back to 1999’s The Insider to find a comparable film with as much intelligence and self-assurance.

The script here, written by director Tony Gilroy, is tightly-constructed, non-linear, and avoids obvious cliches. Gilroy had written all three Bourne movies by this time (he would write-direct a fourth in 2012), so clearly he had the chops to put together a compelling action flick. This was his first directorial gig though, so it’s not like this was going to be a slam dunk. Denzel apparently turned down George Clooney’s role because of his hesitance at working with a first-time director. What Gilroy brings besides his excellent writing is some decent visuals filmed in a mostly classical style. Nothing too flashy with the camerawork like the Bourne flicks, which mostly works for this type of film. You can tell Gilroy doesn’t necessarily have the eye for a telling shot like some of the greats working today, but his writing more than makes up for it.

He does have help, though. Clooney is excellent, cool and suave like Danny Ocean, but with an undercurrent of frustration and paranoia. As stellar a career as he’s had, you could make the argument this is his best work (I don’t know if I’d necessarily make that argument, but you could). Playing the titular character, his “fixer” works for a high-powered law firm in New York. He’s brought in to clean up the mess made by Tom Wilkinson’s Arthur Edens, a defense lawyer whose bipolar condition causes him to act irrational and paranoid while working on a case for a shady chemical company. Wilkinson, all wild-eyed and unstable, usually isn’t given roles where he can go this gonzo. He relishes it, as does Tilda Swinton, who plays a legal representative of the aforementioned shady company. She won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here in an understated, far from showy performance.

There are a handful of really gripping scenes where the actors just continually raise the bar for each other. Wilkinson and Clooney in the alley and then Clooney and Swinton at the close of the film come to mind. Acting and dialogue meshing wonderfully, with themes of paranoia and corporate corruption revealing an outraged worldview that doesn’t resort to heavy-handedness. It’s righteous anger that doesn’t need to shout.

Of course, a year or so after Michael Clayton‘s release, we had the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S., with corporate negligence and greed contributing to the Great Recession. In the end, Clayton nails the chemical company for manufacturing a weed killer it knew to be carcinogenic. If this movie had come out a couple years later than it did something tells me it might have made more money at the box office.

Critics gushed over it, nonetheless. In a stacked year, it made numerous end-of-year top ten lists. They compared it to classic 1970s and 80s legal thrillers, where the style never casts a shadow over the substance, like All the President’s Men and The Verdict. Those are apt comparisons, because the restraint in visual style and pacing is what sets Michael Clayton apart. In the decade since, Tony Gilroy has only enhanced his reputation as an intelligent Hollywood screenwriter, although his two directorial efforts since (Duplicity and The Bourne Legacy) have fallen short of Michael Clayton‘s heights. Gilroy has a remarkable ear for killer dialogue, but not necessarily overt visual panache, which, like I said, doesn’t hurt this film at all.

If there was a sigh of relief that smart, medium-budget thrillers like this could still get made back in 2007, it would be an even heavier exhale today, as comic book movies and sequels crowd out the Michael Claytons from even getting greenlit. More and more, understated prestige dramas can be found on TV (The Americans, The Night Manager) instead of at the movie theater. It’s certainly not easy to create something as compelling as Michael Clayton, but the lack of similar films in recent years is disheartening.

Increasingly, if your movie isn’t an already recognizable franchise or can’t immediately generate discussion/controversy, it might never see the light of day. Michael Clayton was a grower for me. I enjoyed the first watch, but only on the second did its excellence become obvious to me. Due to its patient, slow burn nature, it’s simply working on a higher level from the vast majority of political and legal thrillers. Pour one out with me for all the Michael Claytons that never made it to the screen.

More on The Class of 2007:

Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

The Class of 2007: David Fincher’s Obsessive, Unorthodox Zodiac

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were improbably treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: None

Domestic box office: $33,080,084 (81st highest-grossing movie of 2007)

What the critics said: “…the film is at once sprawling and tightly constructed, opaque and meticulously detailed. It’s part police procedural, part monster movie, a funereal entertainment that is an unexpected repudiation of Mr. Fincher’s most famous movie, the serial-killer fiction “Seven,” as well as a testament to this cinematic savant’s gifts.” – Manhola Dargis

The 2007 Academy Awards featured a stacked lineup of spectacular films. It featured some of the most respected names in the business getting handed gold trophies, like the Coen brothers, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Tilda Swinton. It did not feature Zodiac, David Fincher’s dark view into the obsessive search for the infamous serial killer. But it probably should’ve.

It’s not hard to see why Zodiac wasn’t beloved when it came out. Here’s the director of Se7en, an endlessly watchable serial killer movie, returning twelve years later to make a thriller about another real-life serial killer, except it feels vastly different from his previous work. Fincher doesn’t lean on any of his past successes as a filmmaker too heavily in Zodiac. All of the violence happens in the first 20 or so minutes, and then we settle into a methodical procedural that — if I’m being honest — is an equally frustrating and fascinating journey the first time you watch it.

If you see it again, you begin to realize how mesmerizing the painstaking details of Zodiac become. This is a testament to the mood Fincher creates, where the film’s pace never gets away from him. There’s very little (if any) of the car chases, shootouts, and lengthy monologues about justice and evil that you come to expect from a crime thriller.

Similarly, Fincher’s visuals are deliberately drab compared to his other work, before and after. Zodiac doesn’t have the sleek and polished look of Fight Club or The Social Network. The color palette is muted, which fits the gritty police halls and newsrooms of the 1970s, as well as the ambiguous nature of the story.

Fincher did, however, put some polished talent on the screen. Fresh off Brokeback Mountain, Jake Gyllenhaal had proven himself as a young, Academy-respected actor. He plays Robert Graysmith, the central figure over the last half of the film, who becomes totally enveloped in unhooding the Zodiac killer. Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t quite a Hollywood leading man yet (this was pre-Iron Man), but is utterly captivating as reporter Paul Avery. Finally, Mark Ruffalo puts in a workmanlike performance as police Inspector David Toschi. Ruffalo’s best roles would arrive a few years down the line.

Although all three have probably been better in other films, they’re tremendous here. Gyllenhaal is striking in his innocence (Aqua Velva, anyone?) , Downey is typically charismatic and electric, and Ruffalo is solid as an oak. With the three of them so well cast, Zodiac is elevated to heights it wouldn’t have otherwise reached.

And yet, it was no crowdpleaser. Audiences met it with lukewarm reactions. It made just over $33 million domestically on a $65 million budget, 2007’s 81st highest-grossing movie. Again, this isn’t overly surprising considering this is a steady hunt for a serial killer with no definitive payoff. Zodiac is certainly slow, but it continually draws you in closer, even as it becomes clear we aren’t going to get a crispy realization.

That’s the crux of it, really. Zodiac is an ambiguous work about the ruinous power of obsession made by a director who is known for his attention to detail and rigorous methods. Fincher is infamous for demanding an endless number of takes, breaking down actors until he gets exactly what he wants (apparently he drove Downey Jr. to store his urine in jars on set). It’s not inconceivable to think Fincher felt a kind of kinship with the figures who were driven to find the Zodiac killer.

I was thinking the other day about why Zodiac intrigues me so much even though we never learn the identity of the killer. Maybe it’s because it was created by someone who lives and breathes the kind of obsession shown on screen that the payoff becomes almost irrelevant.

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Denis Villeneuve, Master of Dread

arrival-movie-alien-ship

In Arrival, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi mind-warper, you don’t see the alien spacecraft at first, not even after it has landed on our planet. Villeneuve makes you wait, for an unsettling amount of time, until our main character, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is there in person. Only then is the spacecraft revealed to us in an image that conjures up equal parts dread and beauty.

Villeneuve usually drenches his films in pure dread from start to finish. You’d think this would make his work overly dour or unwatchable, but he somehow avoids that trap. How does he so successfully present his signature mood on screen? And how does he find the beauty despite it all? Let’s pull some examples from his four most recent pictures, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and Arrival.

Visuals

Since he doesn’t have a writing credit on any of his last four movies, the cinematography and shot composition is where you will find Villeneuve leaving his imprint the most. On each movie, every corner of the screen has been filled with evocative images of dread.

Of course, it presents itself a little differently for each film. In Prisoners, the child abduction thriller, it’s a suburban dread, one where a neighborhood of comfort and affluence is morphed into terror and torment. Interiors of suburban homes are depicted in mostly grays and blues; the weather is either cold, rainy, or both. The entire movie, although a bit too long, is infused with such a disturbing and uneasy mood that it’s impossible to relax.

For his drug war indictment Sicario, Villeneuve utilizes the harsh, dehydrated U.S.-Mexican border landscapes to convey dread of a savage world. We follow Emily Blunt’s out-of-place FBI agent into “a land of wolves.” One bravura shot of the agents preparing for a raid on a drug-smuggling tunnel into the United States is a perfect example of this dread. Against a dusk backdrop, the black shapes of the soldiers walk down toward the tunnel, almost as if they are descending into hell itself. Simultaneously, the droning, bass-heavy score perfectly soundtracks this bleak journey.

sicario-soldiers-dusk

Arrival has us dreading the threat of the unknown through the gorgeous, yet unsettling shots of the exterior and interior of the alien spacecraft. Once inside this strange, coal-black oval, we again feel a mixture of awe and trepidation, due to absence of gravity and the minimalist aesthetic. We’re not sure if these beings come in peace or malevolence, but wow, is their spaceship breathtaking.

Performances

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Jake Gyllenhaal is the only actor to star in more than one Villeneuve movie, which is perfect, because he’s best as a restless and anxious performer, going all the way back to Donnie Darko. In their psychosexual thriller, Enemy, Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal team up to create a masterfully tense and ambiguous ride. Gyllenhaal plays a professor who sees his doppelganger in a movie and won’t stop until he’s figured out what’s going on. As the detective investigating the missing children in Prisoners, he brings that character’s stress to screen through various tics and mannerisms. Both are performances of undeniable psychological complexity that display Gyllenhaal’s prodigious talent — and Villeneuve’s ability to bring it out of him.

Other big name actors also fare well in his films. Blunt and Benicio del Toro stand out in Sicario, the former just trying to keep her head above water in a chaotic and merciless drug world, while the latter unflinchingly and single-mindedly navigates the same landscape. When he says to her, “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now,” you feel every bit of the danger and dread the scene lays out.

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Perhaps the best performance in any Villeneuve film is Adams in Arrival. Most of the movie relies on her to singlehandedly emote what each specific scene requires. Put bluntly, this is her movie. She conveys intelligence, wonder, and pain with nimble grace throughout. She’s been nominated for five Oscars already, and I’m not sure she’s ever been better than she is here. Something about the uncertain world Villeneuve builds around her allows her to thrive as a poised and steady presence.

Pacing

One of the things Villeneuve does better than most of his peers is pacing. His films move at a patient and measured clip; you always feel as if you are in good hands when you watch his work. You could do everything else right — acting, score, writing, visuals — but if your pacing is off, your film won’t have the desired effect.

Villeneuve is a master at gradually ramping up tension. His camera moves slowly and deliberately as he sets up his dread-filled sequences. You never feel like things are moving too fast, and you never feel like they’re moving too slow, because you’re hooked on what’s going to happen next. The border ambush scene from Sicario makes for an apt example.

There’s hardly a more precarious setting for a shootout than bumper-to-bumper traffic. Villeneuve uses this to his advantage by creating unbearable tension as the cars inch forward. He shows us the target vehicles and then takes us inside one of them, slowly panning around so we can see the guns. As the agents advance on them, your pulse quickens. After several harrowing seconds of a standoff, violence explodes from the screen in a flash of red and shattered windows.  At this point the action has subsided, but as Blunt’s character surveys the scene, you catch an approaching figure in the car’s side mirror. Just like that, we are thrust back into danger.

The actual violence in that scene was mere seconds long, but everything around it was so masterfully handled that the burst of action had maximum impact.

———–

In his piece on Villeneuve in The Ringer, Chris Ryan astutely outlines the lineage and method of directors like Villeneuve.

He is a worthy inheritor of a complicated legacy: part of a tradition that includes Ridley Scott (Villeneuve is making a sequel to Scott’s seminal Blade Runner) and David Fincher (and Stanley Kubrick, and the Coen brothers, and Cary Fukunaga, and Michael Bay) — directors who often take the mundane or grotesque parts of life, and create deeply pleasurable aesthetic experiences out of them. The more mundane or grotesque the better. They view it as a challenge: serial killers, child kidnappings, military engagements, panic rooms, border wars, psycho-sexual waking nightmares, Transformers, Facebook, Chinese restaurants, college dorm rooms, daylit Texas bars — it’s all a canvas. They are interested in the painting.

Villeneuve has proven to be a master at this. He makes dark, moody, often bleak movies that are also impossibly handsome. This makes his work pleasant in a sense, despite their setting and subject matter.

However, in Arrival we see him doing something a little different. Dread still very much fills the screen, but this time he lets some light in. Villeneuve himself said he wanted “a vacation from darkness,” and you can see this in the optimistic and life-affirming nature of Arrival. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that we’re used to alien invasion movies being highly apocalyptic. Arrival flips that on its head.

This newfound ray of light makes for an exciting next step in Villeneuve’s evolution as a filmmaker, especially with the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 on the way in 2017. He may be the Master of Dread, but he’s still refining his craft in a fascinating way.

Stanley Kubrick’s Lost Napoleon, One of Film’s Greatest What Ifs

 

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Awhile back, I got really into the life of Alexander the Great. I read about him online, I checked out a biography from the library, and I watched the “Ultimate Cut” of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, all 206 grueling minutes of it. I felt as if I had gone pretty deep into the Greek king’s life and persona. And yet this was nothing compared to Stanley Kubrick’s legendary preparation for his lost Napoleon epic.

From 1955 to his death in 1999, Kubrick only made 13 films. Known as an obsessive and reclusive perfectionist, this low number in almost 45 years isn’t surprising. This means the anticipation for each film he released couldn’t have been higher. If he had ever made his Napoleon, it would have easily been the most expensive and ambitious piece of cinema in the Kubrick canon.

He first started actively pursuing the idea of a Napoleon biopic in the late 1960s, right as he was finishing up 2001: A Space Odyssey. As his assistant Tony Frewin tells it, the kernel for the project was in Kubrick’s interest in, “this ability to be a man of action, an intellectual, a strategist, with political objectives, and how you balanced all this and did what was right, I guess Napoleon grew out of that.”

A few years after Kubrick’s death, a reporter for The Guardian was granted access to his estate. Frewin takes him on a tour almost as surreal as Kubrick’s films:

Tony takes me into a large room painted blue and filled with books. “This used to be the cinema,” he says.

“Is it the library now?” I ask.

“Look closer at the books,” says Tony.

I do. “Bloody hell,” I say. “Every book in this room is about Napoleon!”

“Look in the drawers,” says Tony.

I do.

“It’s all about Napoleon, too!” I say. “Everything in here is about Napoleon!”

Later, Frewin tells him somewhere in the house is a cabinet with 25,000 library cards detailing every nook and cranny of Napoleon’s life. He says it took Kubrick and his assistants years, most of “the late 60s”.

That interview with Frewin sheds light on other revealing facts about the master director’s quirks and process. Unsurprisingly, Kubrick loved things like typeface and stationary. He stored his voluminous research material in boxes, but he didn’t like the way they opened and closed, so he designed his own and had a company manufacture them. On the other hand, he was no Luddite. He’d use new technology if he thought it would make his painstaking process more efficient — such as a fax machine, back in the day before they were commonly used.

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While this unimaginable mountain of research never led to an actual movie, it did at least produce a Kubrick-penned screenplay in 1969, which fortunately, is available online. The 155-page script begins with a 4-year-old Napoleon and journeys throughout his life and times, culminating with the Battle of Waterloo and his death in exile. It’s part origin story, part love story, and part war story.

He did more than just study and write a script about the French leader though. Kubrick scouted locations; they would shoot the film in France, Italy, and Yugoslavia. To render the epic battle sequences as accurately as possible, he planned to use roughly 40,000 (!!!) Romanian soldiers as extras, a number so outrageous that I’d consider it a typo if I wasn’t familiar with Kubrick’s methods. In a slightly alternate universe, he may have actually made that happen.

Then, of course, there was the mighty task of finding the right actor to play the great Napoleon Bonaparte. In his production notes at the end of the screenplay, Kubrick remarks that whoever plays Napoleon “should be able to convey the restless energy, the ruthlessness, and the inflexible will of Bonaparte, but, at the same time, the tremendous charm…” Originally, he wanted the English actor David Hemmings for Napoleon.  Over a decade later in 1980, when he was still claiming a desire to go forward with production, he tossed out Al Pacino as an ideal choice.

For Napoleon’s wife Josephine, Kubrick wanted Audrey Hepburn. Names like Alec Guinness (who would later play Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars) and Laurence Olivier were thrown around as possible supporting characters.

As his epic movie was coming together on paper, another Napoleon picture hit the theaters in 1970. Waterloo, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk with a budget of $38 million, was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time. It starred Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon. 16,000 Soviet soldiers were utilized as extras. In the end, it was a considerable box office failure, leading to serious caution from the studios. They eventually viewed the cost of filming Kubrick’s project about the same central figure as excessive, so he moved on to A Clockwork Orange. (In fact, something similar happened in the early 90s when Kubrick was considering making a Holocaust film called “Wartime Lies”. Although, this time it was the success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that caused him to step away.)

Ten years later, during which he made Barry Lyndon and The Shining, Kubrick was apparently still considering his Napoleon. In a 1980 interview, he expressed this desire before speaking reverently about the French emperor, creating an analogy (in his words, not “a serious comparison”) between the tedious logistical sides of battle and filmmaking. This, I think, is a clear window into why Kubrick so badly wanted to do a Napoleon film — and do it right.

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I mean, why would he spend so much time and effort on a project that was, frankly, a long shot to ever get made, considering its wildly ambitious scope? Undoubtedly, part of it was just Kubrick’s method. This is how he made movies. His research phase was lengthy and arduous. Frewin, his longtime assistant, claims he read just about every ghost book ever written for The Shining. After his research, he moved on to the unbelievably meticulous and often minuscule visual details that would inhabit his film. Then he would begin shooting, and, following that, you can only imagine Kubrick’s post-production editing process.

That’s part of why he spent years on his never-made Napoleon. The other is his fascination and perceived kinship with one of the most famous historical figures ever. Here’s his quote from that 1980 interview:

I suspect that for Napoleon, his military campaigns provided him with at least all of the excitement and satisfaction of making a film and, equally so, I would imagine everything in between must have seemed pretty dull by comparison. Of course this is not an explanation of the Napoleonic wars, but perhaps it suggests some part of the explanation for Napoleon’s apparently irrepressible desire for still one more campaign. What must it be like to realize that you are perhaps the greatest military commander in history, have marshals like Ney, Murat, Davout, the finest army in Europe, and have no place to go and nothing to do? Then, continuing with this by now overstretched analogy, there is the big-budgeted disaster — the Russian Campaign, in which, from the start, Napoleon ignored the evidence which suggested the campaign would be such a costly disaster. And, finally, before his first exile, after fighting a series of brilliant battles against the Allies’ superior numbers, Napoleon still had a final opportunity for compromise, but he over-negotiated, gambled on his military magic, and lost.

For Kubrick and Napoleon, the “excitement and satisfaction” of life came from their laborious and scrupulous work. Kubrick very patently admired this aspect of Napoleon’s personality. And, if I may branch an analogy off of Kubrick’s own analogy here, what must it have been like to be Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the greatest director in history, and have no place to go and nothing to do? By 1980, he had traveled through just about every genre (crime noir with The Killing, war with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, comedy/satire with Dr. Strangelove, sci-fi with 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, period drama with Barry Lyndon, and finally, horror with The Shining) and come out with several masterpieces. Where do you go from there? For Kubrick, studying Napoleon’s life must have been like looking into a mirror at times.

Would Kubrick’s Napoleon have been his “big-budgeted disaster”? Not likely. Some critics have labeled his movies as cold and distant, but no one ever claims he birthed a full-on disaster, like so many other great directors have. No matter where this lost film would’ve ranked in Kubrick’s filmography, this remains one of cinema’s greatest What Ifs. I think there’s a good chance it would’ve been his most personal and idiosyncratic work, despite its astounding size and scope, precisely because of Kubrick’s affinity with his subject.

Today, as they were back then, studios are too afraid to greenlight these types of projects — and maybe rightfully so. However, watching Oliver Stone’s Alexander, although it’s bloated and deeply flawed, made me pine for this type of insanely ambitious historical biopic. Who else would you want to give it a go than Stanley Kubrick?

What a Lovely Day, Or, My Top 10 Films of 2015

Others seen: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, True Story, Meru, The Martian, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Hateful Eight, Trainwreck

10. Beasts of No Nation

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Released by Netflix last fall, Beasts of No Nation seemed like it would either be a revolutionary introduction to award-winning films funded by streaming sites or a quickly forgotten gem in the middle of a glut of Oscar-worthy movies opening around the same time. Unfortunately, we witnessed the latter. Still, Cary Fukunaga’s child soldier war drama was a stunning look at the destruction caused by an African civil war.

Idris Elba fully inhabits the ruthless, yet charismatic, commander. He is entirely monstrous, but you can see how a lost child like Agu (played splendidly by unknown actor Abraham Attah) would be attracted to following someone like that. While Fukunaga, who directed the entire first season of True Detective, never shies away from the graphic nature of a brutally nihilist war, his film, although marvelously shot, ends as more of an unfocused exercise than the moving depiction of humanity that it tries to be.

9. The Big Short

Taking a subject as depressing as the housing crisis and ensuing economic meltdown and morphing it into a madly entertaining and quite funny portrayal is one thing. Injecting all of this with an undercurrent of anger is another. Somehow, the writer-director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers was the man for the job. Adam McKay’s work with Will Ferrell is riotous and hysterical, but The Big Short is a different kind of humor.

There’s real frustration bubbling under the skin of this movie. McKay treats his characters with the nuance they deserve — that is, he makes them both attractive and repellent. Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling perfectly encapsulate this idea, although it was Christian Bale that was recognized by the Academy.

All in all, I wasn’t really into the visual style McKay employs (the jittery, quick-cutting, MTV feel isn’t usually my jam), but his choice to use gimmicks, like breaking the fourth wall and hauling in celebrities, to explain the financial mumbo-jumbo should be lauded. It reminds me, in some ways, of the triumph that was The Social Network, where an esoteric topic is explained in fun bits, all the while leaving you amazed at the accomplishment.

8. Mad Max: Fury Road

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What a lovely day, indeed. For at least the first half of Mad Max: Fury Road, I found myself thinking, “I have no idea what’s happening or who these people are, but this is insane fun.” Director George Miller tosses you into a desolate, water-starved, chaotic, murderous, post-apocalyptic hellscape and doesn’t bother to give you a lick of information. Dialogue is as scarce as green grass and compassion in this world. The severely limited background knowledge (particularly if you’ve never seen any Mad Max flicks) does hurt Fury Road in the early stages. And at the same time, it doesn’t really matter at all. You’re so fully immersed in this strange and intense (those are understatements, to say the least) world, that the level of viewing enjoyment is off the charts. I’ve never been so thrillingly, exhilaratingly confused by a movie.

As we get some more context for Tom Hardy’s Max and Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, the tender humanity improbably starts to creep into such a battle-hardened backdrop. Speaking of those two, the casting of Hardy and Theron was so wonderfully fitting that I can’t think of anybody that would work better in those roles.

Plus, I haven’t even mentioned Miller’s technical feat here. With mostly practical effects, this setting feels lived-in, despite the fact that almost the entire film is one long, frantic chase sequence through the bone-dry desert. More than a few shots almost cause you to audibly gasp at their magnificence. Despite the (deliberate) disarray we are shuttled into at the start, Mad Max is a towering, fiercely feminist, and remarkably weird action movie.

7. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The clash between homage and originality in The Force Awakens was what made it so fascinating to watch and endlessly discuss. Yes, it’s basically a full-on remake of the original Star Wars: A New Hope. The story beats hit all the same notes — the deja vu is strong with this one. However, how fun is it to see entirely fresh characters on the screen, especially when that opens the door to women and minorities to be the heroes? From their opening scenes, it became abundantly clear that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were magnetic beyond their limited acting experience.

Clearly, J.J. Abrams was the 100% right choice if you want to get a rusty Millennium Falcon franchise off the ground. Now, Abrams has still never made an all-time great film. His Star Trek and Super 8 came close, just as this one did, but for this trilogy to hit lightspeed, it will need someone with more prodigious talents. Like Rian Johnson. Needless to say, I’m on pins and needles awaiting the next chapter.

6. Inside Out

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The degree of difficulty here is crazy. Imagine sitting down at your laptop with the intention of writing a screenplay about our emotional lives, with all its abstract complexity and competing theories. Now imagine attempting to transfer this murky interiority to a movie screen. Both of those things seem impossible, and yet, Inside Out pulls them off with exuberance, grace, and feeling.

Pixar has been making smart and fascinating animated films for the last 20+ years (coming up with a top 5 Pixar movies is way harder than you’d think), but this one may just be their most intelligent work to date. Still, it’s more than a brainy trip through the mind of an 11-year-old. It’s also surprisingly fun and hilariously clever. The casting is pitch perfect, with Amy Poehler, playing the voice (and concept) of Joy, as the lead and the others embodying Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger with aplomb.

At the same time, Inside Out is not afraid to get all melancholy and dive headfirst into existential distress. The co-director, Pete Docter, is at least partly responsible for Pixar classics like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Up. Just like those, if you have a beating heart, Inside Out yanks unexpected emotions out of it like a rabbit from a hat. The magic it took to make this is astounding.

5. Room

A remarkable story (from Emma Donoghue, adapting her own book) that demanded two remarkable performances. As Ma and Jack, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay have all the necessary qualities to make Room work. (Future Oscar winner) Larson, who I knew only from 21 Jump Street, is stunningly believable as a young woman kidnapped and locked in a shed for 7 years. Tremblay makes Jack into a rambunctious, curious, and wide-eyed 5-year-old. The performances work together as a heartbreaking whole.

Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson give you the story from Jack’s perspective, which makes the wonder of the world when they finally free themselves all the more affecting. There’s more than one scene in this movie that left me totally speechless. Abrahamson, Larson, and Tremblay are all worth watching in the future.

4. Sicario

It’s all about mood with director Denis Villeneuve. His last three films, Prisoners, Enemy, and this one, could be classified as thrillers, but function more as dark experiments in mood and atmosphere. All three are marvelous in their own way, but Sicario takes on a wider lens by dishing out hard truths about the drug war. The three leads, Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro, each serve a specific role in explaining why the war on drugs is so troublesome.

In the end, Sicario feels a bit like outstanding acting and visuals in search of a better screenplay. The writing isn’t poor by any means, it just doesn’t seem up to snuff with the rest of the quality on screen: Villeneuve sets up a couple unforgettably show-stopping scenes; Blunt, in particular, delivers a powerfully vulnerable performance; and the shot of the special forces moving against a mesmerizing dusk backdrop, as the menacingly bleak soundtrack blares, was probably the most indelible movie moment of the year for me. I had sky-high expectations walking into this one, and remarkably, Sicario came oh-so-close to living up to them.

3. The Revenant

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Weirdly, The Revenant reminds me of watching Steph Curry right now — where it’s like, okay, anything this guy touches becomes gold… That’s how in the zone Alejandro Inarritu is at the moment. Birdman and The Revenant are masterful and original in an almost unmatched way. In the latter, he (and his visionary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) has delivered a bleak tale of determination, revenge, and regret that is wholly spectacular.

Another artist squarely in his prime is Leonardo DiCaprio. He’ll win his first Oscar for his portrayal of 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass. It’s an unsurprisingly excellent performance, if not quite his very best, because it suits DiCaprio’s strengths as (secretly) a better physical performer than he is a verbal one. There’s not much for Glass to say as he crawls across the ruthless and weather-beaten terrain to achieve his vengeance, but all you need to watch is his eyes to read what’s happening. It’s a testament to DiCario’s dedication that Tom Hardy’s magnificent performance doesn’t upstage him.

I was astounded by The Revenant at every turn. Although the end doesn’t quite live up to all that came before, there’s about five or six different scenes throughout that don’t seem possible, from the impeccably staged battle at the beginning to the infamous bear attack. It’s the depiction of nature’s beauty and brutality that makes this one so essential.

2. Ex Machina

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Ex Machina is a swirling, mysterious mass of sci-fi suspense and intrigue. Most impressively, writer-director Alex Garland perfectly balances the intellectual with the suspenseful. Just when you think it’s getting too heady, there’s a sequence that leaves you breathless and blindsided. Just when you think it’s getting too pulpy, you realize Ex Machina has actual things to say about artificial intelligence and how humans should approach it. By the end, you’re frozen in your seat as the credits roll, trying in vain to sort out what you just watched.

Needless to say, I was riveted from start to finish. Part of this was the sumptuous cinematography, which uses its aggressively modern setting to great effect. All the hard, clean lines of Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac, as a kind of eccentric pseudo-Google CEO) mountain-surrounded tech-bunker may leave some cold, but it was an undeniably gorgeous background for the futuristic terror taking place. Speaking of Isaac, he’s completely fascinating as one-third of the triumvirate of lead actors that also includes Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander (who both enjoyed breakout years). Every gear of Ex Machina just works brilliantly. Of any movie this year, this is the one I’m most excited about seeing another time.

1. Spotlight

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Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a film as powerful as Spotlight that’s also so totally bereft of visual flair. And I mean that as a compliment. The films that usually draw me in and don’t let go until they have left a profound impression are the ones with the mind-melting visual artistry. You know, Gravity, The Tree of Life, and Inception, to name a few recent ones. Spotlight is decidedly not like those. Spotlight is all pleated khakis, drop-ceiling lighting, and paper coffee cups. Director Tom McCarthy (Scott Templeton from The Wire!) knows that for the story to be the emotional gut punch it needs to be, the visual component has to be typically drab. For instance, and this sounds insane, but I think it would be a worse film if it were directed by David Fincher.

Spotlight is also the film with the very best acting ensemble of the year. I still can’t decide who killed it the most between Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams. Behind them, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery (hey there, Roger Sterling!), Billy Crudup, and Stanley Tucci all bring it with memorable performances. The moral complexity both in the script and in their performances is extraordinary.

Like I said, Spotlight just won’t leave me alone, even though I saw it two full months ago. The horrifying progression from shock to anger to pity to despair this film takes us through was unparalleled in its effectiveness this year, despite The Big Short trying to do something similar. Spotlight‘s last image is simply an exhaustive list of cities stricken with accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. I couldn’t think of a more flawless way to conclude what we just watched.