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

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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

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

Denis Villeneuve, Master of Dread

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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.

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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.

amy-adams-arrival

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.

Stanley-Kubrick

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.

A Bittersweet Salute to Grantland

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I remember the exact moment I began to care about writing. It was 2009 and the Lakers had just won the NBA championship. Right after the game, I read a fascinating ESPN.com article on Kobe Bryant from a writer named Bill Simmons. With its entertaining tone and fan perspective, it was wholly unique to any sportswriting I had seen before. I was just about to start college, didn’t consider myself a writer, and didn’t have much interest in the subject at all.

The next two years I followed Simmons religiously. Sure, he was an obnoxious Boston fan most of the time, but he was a fun, relatable, and engaging obnoxious Boston fan. When it was announced that ESPN was opening up a Simmons-run site with 70% sports/30% pop culture content, I would say I was cautiously thrilled, if you can be such a thing. It sounded right up my alley, but an entire website of Simmons imitators made me a bit worried. Don’t get me wrong: I love Simmons’ writing, but a whole site of 4,000-word retro diaries and shaky sports-pop culture analogies supplemented by heavy doses of unabashed homerism? That didn’t sound so super.

Now, four-plus years later, my favorite site has shut down. 

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If I had to tally up all of the work/class hours I have spent reading Grantland, I’d be a little embarrassed. From its birth in the summer of 2011 to its death this past Friday, I was hooked. No, it wasn’t a perfect website; it took them some time to find their footing, but, I was all the way in since its first post, where editor-in-chief Bill Simmons wrote that one of Grantland’s goals was “to find writers we liked and let them do their thing.”

Boy, did they. This was a site where you could read a deep-dive into how LaMarcus Aldridge will fit in with the Spurs right next to a “Definitive Ranking” of all the jackets in Star WarsThe smartest thing Simmons ever did was hire a bunch of people who don’t write like he does. Whatever you think of him as a personality or as a writer, the guy knows how to find talent. 

Unsurprisingly, the collective nature of the enterprise was one of the things that will stand out the most in Grantland’s legacy. When several insanely skilled writers all jumped on one blog post — like in their NBA Shootarounds, the Lightning Round takes after a new album or movie trailer release, or the After-Party group posts the morning following the Emmys, Oscars, etc. — it was unlike anything you could find on the Internet. That was some of Grantland’s best stuff… except for a Brian Phillips piece on Federer, FIFA, Messi, sumo wrestling, shark attacks, sunken WWII battleships, and well, just about anything.

For me, Phillips was the Danny Ocean of the group, the guy whose effortless brilliance seemed to consistently outshine everyone else. His longform work, where he gifted readers with poetic, transcendent,  astonishing, and deeply weird pieces on Japan (The Sea of Crises) and the Iditarod, are perhaps my two favorite things to ever go up on Grantland.

That’s not to say the others couldn’t bring it. Andy Greenwald is the most clever and infectious TV writer I’ve read. Alex Pappademas came with fresh, intelligent perspectives on Hollywood, and film in general. Zach Lowe gave us exhaustive and insightful NBA coverage. Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays did the same on the NFL. Molly Lambert wrote in a number of different areas, but I’ll remember her witty and incisive celebrity profiles, as well as her extraordinarily perceptive Mad Men recaps, the most. Steven Hyden arrived more recently than the others, but the former Pitchfork contributor wrote knowledgeably and entertainingly on all things music, past and present. Rembert Browne brought that uncanny ability to merge the endearingly silly with the seriously journalistic, often in the same article. And Chris Ryan could seamlessly transition between the NBA, Premier League soccer, and film/TV analysis with aplomb.

Those are just my personal favorites. There’s countless other writers/editors whose work I thoroughly enjoyed. If you read Grantland daily, you were left astounded by the vast array of style. The other best thing Simmons did besides hiring writers that were unlike him? He allowed them to “do their thing” by straying across subject lines. On the same day, you could find a writer penning an essay on the latest Netflix show and appearing on a group NBA post. I don’t know of any other publication where this happens. Grantland had a deep understanding that people who write well in one area can probably write well in another.

There was this unpretentious combination of high and lowbrow that they pulled of so well. For example, they somehow put together a Paul Thomas Anderson Week and a Rom-Com Week. The engaging reader-voted brackets to decide the Best Tom Cruise or the greatest character from The Wire were acknowledged as the meaningless, yet highly amusing, content that they were. Then there was Oscarmetrics, the hilariously absurd Mad Men Power Rankings, and the NBA Playoffs and March Madness coverage that made those events even more fun to follow.

Of course, Grantland’s podcast network can’t go unmentioned. Any subject you wanted covered had a podcast that irreverently discussed the latest news. The rapport between hosts was obvious, probably because many of them were already familiar before they became Grantland coworkers. After a few listens to the Hollywood Prospectus or Girls in Hoodies, you felt like you were in on the jokes and a part of the circle.

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Time seems to fly by when you look back at a specific moment, like that first Simmons article I read six years ago. Then you realize just how much has happened in that elapsed time. I went from a holding an utter indifference to developing a serious love of writing. Now this blog exists. Now I write about soccer for a living. Now I know writing about sports and pop culture will be something I’ll likely do for the rest of my life. I’d say pretty confidently Grantland was the primary driving force behind this evolution. For the last couple years, my dream job was to write for that site.

What led to Grantland’s death was a mix of corporate politics, a post-Simmons lack of leadership, and its refusal to bend to the substance-free clickbait online culture to drive traffic. In the many eulogies across the web, you got the sense that Grantland’s influence had a wider reach than anybody thought. Its loss will be felt, but the talent is still out there to create something similar in the future — although its brilliance will be tough to match. We got four-plus years of thought-provoking, entertaining as hell, and routinely exceptional words on sports and culture.

I call this a bittersweet salute because I’m embittered and dejected seeing Grantland die. Still, I’m sentimental and grateful I ever saw it live.

Indie Film Studio A24 Bats a Really High Percentage

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I used to have no interest in production credits at the beginning of a film. What difference does it make who produced and distributed it? Just tell me who is directing/writing/starring, a.k.a the people who actually have creative control over the project. 

That’s how I used to think, but recently, whenever I see the logo of A24 Films or Annapurna Pictures at the start of a movie, I inch forward in my chair a bit. Quick anecdote: I was settling into a viewing of Ex Machina a couple weeks ago, still irked with myself for paying an extra $6-7 for the off-brand IMAX experience called RPX at my local theater (not worth it, people), when the “A24 Films” marquee flashed just before the film began. This piqued my interest in Ex Machina even more (and it was already quite piqued, quite), because I had remembered A24 from a couple recent films I had really enjoyed (The Bling Ring, Enemy, Under the Skin) It helped me feel like I was in more secure hands, even though the director, Alex Garland, was a first-timer. 

This is because A24 has excellent taste. Founded way back in 2012, the New York-based distribution and production company has always had an eye on both the indie and mainstream. Their three founders — David Fenkel, Daniel Katz, and John Hodges — are all veterans of film financing, development, and production from various backgrounds. However, A24 didn’t find success immediately.

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Their first effort was A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III in early 2013. It didn’t go well. Universally reviled by critics and audiences alike, the Charlie Sheen-led oddball fell flat from the get-go. Although it wasn’t long before they released a film that garnered them the attention they needed to take off. Indie writer-director Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, starring a Riff Raff-inspired James Franco, as well as former Disney kids Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, was just the kind of provocative and hot take-generating content A24 had to be aching for. The rest of 2013 kept the momentum going with The Bling Ring and The Spectacular Now, both strong releases in their own right.

A year before A24 even got off the ground, Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle CEO (and fifth-wealthiest man in the world) Larry Ellison, founded Annapurna Pictures. Since she first started releasing films in 2012, her philosophy seems to have followed this maxim: Find acclaimed directors and give them money to fulfill their bold, original vision that other studios won’t tolerate.

And thank goodness, because since then Annapurna has blessed the viewing public with The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, American Hustle, Foxcatcher, and even more. Those have countless Oscar nominations among them, not to mention how worse off American film would be without their remarkable influence. Although quieter in the last year, Annapurna has films helmed by Richard Linklater and David O. Russell coming out later in 2015.

Ellison’s goodwill upon eager auteurs is wonderful, but it helps that she has the financial backing that she does. A24 doesn’t exactly operate in the same way. Their niche seems to be to seek out strange, dark, modestly-budgeted thrillers and comedies with at least one star attached to the poster. They haven’t been able to afford throwing millions at a difficult, genius director.

Last year was when they really took off, unleashing 11 movies with varying styles and tones in 2014. Enemy, the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller where he stumbles upon a man who looks and speaks exactly like himself, is my favorite of the six or so A24 films I’ve seen. It’s drenched in trippy dread that doesn’t let up from the mysterious beginning through the startling conclusion. Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) is the director, a French-Canadian who really knows how to build tension. Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal have created the kind of deep and ponderous picture that scratches your itch for filmmaking that is both emotionally and intellectually rich.

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These types of cinematic forces of nature aren’t super common, but A24 seems to be batting an abnormally high percentage. Their next feature was Under the Skin, a critically beloved Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flick, which may have confounded most audiences, but certainly gave A24 another well-respected entry. I absolutely have not seen anything like it, for better or worse.

Then came Locke and The Rover. I’ve seen the former, and its minimalism makes it unique in a landscape of movies trying to look as expensive as possible. Locke is 90 minutes of Tom Hardy highway driving. No, literally. And yet, whether it’s the daring premise or Hardy’s magnetism, somehow it works. Meanwhile, The Rover gripped viewers with a post-apocalyptic Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.

You see how these are all very diverse films, yet are all united by a midsize budget, unique premise, and (usually) a single star actor or actress? It’s not a bad strategy, right?

Of course, that isn’t all A24 is doing right. Their social media moves away from the heavily branded, inorganic BS of most studios to embrace something genuinely humorous, spontaneous, and, well, actually fun. You can tell whoever runs their Twitter account a) has a fantastic sense of humor,

and b) really, really loves movies. That’s how it should be.

The best part about that tweet is that Mad Max isn’t even one of their movies. Hopefully, A24 doesn’t get so big that they lose this idiosyncratic and highly accessible social media strategy. It’s another factor that helps them stand apart from competitors.

So what does A24 have on its way for us? 2015 has already been eventful and will continue to be. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young debuted to mostly positive reviews, while Ex Machina impressed critics and has made over $33 million domestically, over twice as much as its $15 million budget (I thought it was excellent, by the way; one of the best recent sci-fi films I’ve seen). Next up is Slow West, a late-1800s Western starring Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn that seems more quirky fireworks than quiet Western plains solitude. Then it’s the Gillian Flynn novel Dark Places that gets an adaptation with Charlize Theron in the lead. Neither of these seem groundbreaking, but they should at least continue pushing A24 up the studio mountain toward more respect and bigger budgets. In the fall of 2013, even DirecTV decided they wanted in on A24’s action, inking a deal that allows the satellite operator to offer some of their films on demand before the theatrical release.

So, while they have risen quickly since their inception only a few years ago, can A24 become a name brand, one that everybody who goes to the occasional movie has heard of? That will be the true test. However, if they keep dishing out a high-quality, yet eclectic mix of off-kilter comedies (Obvious Child, Life After Beth) and dark, genre-pushing fare (Enemy, Under the Skin, Ex Machina), they won’t have anything to worry about. Their early career batting percentage has already earned them plenty of leeway.

A Look Back at the Fascinating Rise of Mexican Cinema’s Three Amigos

 

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When Sean Penn announced Birdman had won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture with his “Who gave this guy a green card?” comment, the ridiculousness of his remark (and the – let’s be honest – even more ridiculous outrage afterwards) overshadowed a deeper truth. With the two most recent Best Director Oscars going to Alfonso Cuaron (for Gravity) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman), we are actually seeing a mercurial rise of Mexican filmmakers. Not that these guys haven’t been doing big things for years; it’s just recently their peers have been throwing awards at them and their names are recognized as some of the top directors working today.

So far I’ve left out the third member of the “Three Amigos” of Mexican cinema, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro. Together they make up a fascinating coalition of foreign filmmakers weaving in and out of the Hollywood studio system. All in their early 50s, they came up in the 1990s assisting and critiquing each other’s movies. Now their voices are some of the most influential and idiosyncratic in the entire industry. But how did they ever get there?

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The story began in the late 80s on the set of a Twilight Zone-esque Mexican TV show called “La Hora Marcada”. Cuaron was an assistant director and del Toro was doing special effects and makeup work (which, if you’ve seen any of his movies, is not much of a surprise). They struck up a friendship there, but who knows if they actually foresaw any of the greatness either of them would achieve.

That show would run from 1986-90, which allowed Cuaron to direct his first feature film in 1991, Solo con tu pareja. Part screwball-comedy, part existential crisis, it’s the story of Tomas, a womanizer who comes to believe he has AIDS because one of his old flames tampered with his medical forms. Cuaron wrote the screenplay with his brother, Carlos, and it’s easy to see why they were drawn to this type of hybrid comedy-melodrama. Tonally, it’s kind of a mess. One minute we are watching Tomas run through a series of slapstick bits you might see on “Friends”; and the next he’s contemplating suicide. I mean, things darken in a hurry. But that’s the charm of Solo con tu pareja — you just know there is talent behind the camera, even if it’s raw and unrefined at the moment. With now-world-renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also worked on “Hora Marcada”) at his side, the two zoom and swing the picture in wildly unpredictable and exhilarating ways. Not everything works, but it’s all incredibly watchable from start to finish.

Next came Cronos in 1993, del Toro’s first effort in the director’s chair. Again, there’s nothing transcendent here — these aren’t Quentin Tarantino origin stories. Cronos is a stylish, unnerving tale of greed and mortality. Ultimately, it’s not my cup of tea, but it does make for an interesting primer for the rest of del Toro’s career. Most of which, he has stayed in the fantasy/horror/gore lane.

Throughout the rest of the 90s, Cuaron would take two directorial gigs that scream “hired hand”, as he didn’t write either of them. However, 1995’s A Little Princess and the Charles Dickens’ adaptation Great Expectations (1998) were both generally well-received, despite the low stakes of the former and the high stakes of the latter. Meanwhile, del Toro helmed Mimic, his 1997 horror-sci-fi picture that failed to move the needle. Neither had found their big break, or reached their prime, yet.

Around this time, Inarritu met Cuaron through their mutual friend (and cinematographer) “Chivo” Lubezki. Inarritu was a radio DJ-turned-filmmaker out of Mexico City, which you certainly don’t see everyday. Tinkering with his first film, Amores Perros, he brought it to Cuaron for advice. After the two chopped and rearranged it, it was released in 2000 to near-universal praise and a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. The multi-narrative thriller criss-crosses between three stories, providing a vivid, lived-in portrait of Mexico City life. It’s intense, fast-paced, and packs an emotional punch. For my money, it’s his best pre-Birdman movie.

The next year, Cuaron and del Toro returned to their roots with two Spanish-language 2001 releases. For del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone was received as a wonderfully creepy and intelligent ghost story. According to IMDb, its story revolves around a boy who arrives at an orphanage, only to find it haunted and loaded with dark secrets. One way to tell the difference between del Toro and the rest of his Amigos: does the movie’s synopsis feature the words “haunted” or “dark secrets”?

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Alongside his brother Carlos, Cuaron wrote his first script in a decade for Y Tu Mama Tambien. With weighty themes built into a light road movie format, this film excels on multiple levels. There’s a sense of adventure and fun amidst real loss and shame, while Gael Garcia Bernal submits one of his better performances (he’s in two of Inarritu’s movies as well). Nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Cuaron had received his first nod from the Academy.

Now we come to the point where each of them start to truly break into the mainstream. With Oscar noms and highly acclaimed films under their belt, Hollywood started calling more frequently. Over the next few years, del Toro would make genre fare like Blade II (2002) and his dream project, Hellboy (2004); Cuaron made the most visually remarkable entry into the Harry Potter canon, with the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2003; Inarritu followed up Amores Perros with a spiritual sequel in the oppressively depressing 21 Grams, featuring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio del Toro, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter two.

If 2002-05 was their mainstream breakout, 2006 was when the Mexican New Wave truly arrived. They garnered 16 Oscar nominations between their three films released that year and all were received glowingly by critics. Children of Men, Cuaron’s stunning and criminally underrated dystopian view of a world where women have become infertile, features a riveting plot and swaggering stylistic impulses bordering on overconfidence (I mean, just watch this frantic long take). Similarly, del Toro’s completely original fantasy adventure, Pan’s Labyrinth, was praised for its singular vision and incredible world-building. Finally, Babel, Inarritu’s final chapter in his downer of a multi-track narrative trilogy, was recognized most heavily by the Academy, finding its way to Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay nominations. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Cuaron called the three “sister films”, based not only on the fact that they each gave and received input throughout the films’ productions, but also by their similar themes of “ideology as a wall between communication and people”. That’s smarter than I could’ve put it so we’ll move on. 2006 remains the banner year for these guys, when you couldn’t escape their excellence.

Quieter times were ahead, though. The next year, the three formed Cha Cha Cha Films, their production company that released a few Mexican films, one directed by Inarritu and another by Carlos Cuaron, but has been relatively inactive since. Del Toro made a Hellboy sequel in 2008 (Hellboy II: The Golden Army, apparently there needed to be another?) and, in 2010, Inarritu put out his Javier Bardem-led Biutiful, which has been described as slow, grim, and bloated — so yeah, not his best.

PACIFIC RIM

It wasn’t until three years later that all three would emerge yet again with some of their best material. After co-writing The Hobbit trilogy with Peter Jackson, del Toro’s next dream project was Pacific Rim, his “robots vs. sea creatures” CGI-epic. As are most of his movies after you only hear the plotline, the result is better than you would think. It’s a crazy fun spectacle, even as the acting (besides Idris Elba of course, whose character has one of the great movie names: Stacker Pentecost) fails to add much of a human element.

That year, Cuaron would also return with what will likely go down as his masterpiece. Gravity, co-written with his son Jonas, took four years to make, which isn’t super surprising given the ambition at hand; it’s still unclear how Cuaron pulled off the following: set a movie entirely in space, cast two actors (TWO!), film that tracking shot at the beginning, and make me comfortable following Sandra Bullock around for 90 minutes (not the biggest Sandy fan). Through all this, he creates one of the best films in the last few years, a critical and box office smash. The entire thing is spellbinding from start to finish, with more than a few jaw-dropping sequences shot by his longtime partner Lubezki.

A quick caveat on him: Lubezki will go down as one of the great cinematographers. In addition to his wizardry with Cuaron and Inarritu, for which he is now a two-time Oscar winner, he has worked with Terrence Malick on his last five productions (including The Tree of Life), AND shot this electrifying Nike World Cup ad in 2010 (directed by Inarritu). At this point, it has become tough to tell who is making who look good. Increasingly, I think Lubezki may be the most talented “amigo”.

When it comes to Academy recognition, Gravity should’ve been the zenith for the Three Amigos. It was a technical feat and a mainstream hit, picking up 7 Oscar wins. However, just one year on, Birdman and Inarritu has supplanted it by taking home Best Director and Best Picture. The Mexican New Wave is more like a tsunami now.

———

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So far, I’ve discussed the Three Amigos as a group so much that I’m doing a disservice to their differences. While they may occasionally work together as a kind of Mexican super crew, you can see they each have their own highly specific vision and style, which has led them down distinctive career paths.

Inarritu was the one obsessed with narrative, and how it weaves and curves through all of our miserable little lives. That is, until Birdman, when he ditched the multi-narrative method and dour mood for a black comedy with deep currents of psychological exploration over free-form jazz drumming. I have no idea what happened in the four years between Biutiful and Birdman, but thank goodness he decided to blow up his style.

Of the three, del Toro is the self-described nerd, the one a little too into comic books and creepy ghost stories. His films have had an ominous feeling of mystery and dread since he got his start over 20 years ago. That feeling, and the imagination pouring out of everything he does, hasn’t changed even as his budgets have grown.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m most enamored with Cuaron’s work. His visual style and propensity to make unorthodox, left-field choices has made me believe he’s the most underrated director working today. An all-around cinematic genius (he writes, directs, and edits), his modest start has meandered its way to an unmitigated success. Maybe it’s because he’s foreign or maybe it’s because 7 years passed between his two most recent films, his name just doesn’t get mentioned when a “best director alive” discussion heats up.

However, that is changing. The Three Amigos have cemented themselves in the rank of elite filmmakers and their credibility only continues to accrue. Their lengthening reach has even taken hold on the small screen — del Toro created the FX show “The Strain”, Cuaron did the same for the short-lived NBC drama “Believe”, and Inarritu will make his TV debut by co-creating “The One Percent” on Starz.

Coming up, they all have projects in the works. Inarritu is also currently filming The Revenant, a revenge tale set in the 1820s starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Count me in on that one. A Boy and His Shoe has been announced as the next film written by Cuaron and his son. Finally, del Toro has Crimson Peak releasing this fall. It already has a trailer out and looks suitably strange and unsettling (first line? “Ghosts are real. This much I know.” Classic Toro). 

Are there failures or misfires on their resumes? Sure, but the peaks clearly outnumber the valleys for these guys. Their journey from small-time TV work in Mexico to accepting Oscars onstage has been nothing short of a miracle. It’s amazing what talent, work, and a green card can do.

Wading Into the Uncertainty of the 2015 Academy Awards

With a few legitimately exciting top-of-the-line races, the 2015 Academy Awards could actually contain some uncertainty. I ran through my Will Win, Second-Place, and Should Win choices for eight of the main categories.

Best Picture

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When it comes to the Oscars, it’s amazing how fickle momentum can be. Since this summer, Boyhood had a comfortable lead as the frontrunner for Best Picture. It was beloved by critics, well-liked by audiences, and, due to its 12-years-in-the-making backstory, respected by the people who actually vote for the award, the Academy. Then, stunningly, its momentum was halted.

It’s not as if Birdman necessarily came out of nowhere. It’s an art film about the industry that utilizes showy, innovative techniques that make your head spin, so it’s not really a surprise the Academy eventually fell for it. The shock was in how strong it started to look as the Oscar race wore on. Each guild — Producers, Writers, Directors — chose the bird over the boy, and suddenly the universal coming-of-age tale was no longer out in front.

Honestly, this is all very good for the Oscars. One, because Boyhood and Birdman are two legitimately beautiful works. I enjoyed both of them greatly and there have been (recent) years where the frontrunner(s) have been far from deserving. Two, this kind of competition and suspense has been sorely missing (minus last year) from the competition over the last several seasons. For the most part, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo all cruised to their Best Picture wins. Now, for the second year in a row, the announcement won’t be a foregone conclusion.

So who takes the trophy? No idea. My hunch is with Birdman just because the Academy loves a movie that dramatizes their profession and slams critics the way that film does. If not, it will be Boyhood. It seems like there is really no room this year for a potential spoiler, no matter how many Wes-heads there are out there or how much shady business Harvey Weinstein does on behalf of The Imitation Game.

Will Win: Birdman

Second-Place: Boyhood

Despite putting Birdman at my number two film of 2014 and Boyhood at number three, my mind has already begun to change. I’d be fine with either winning, but now that I’ve had a few months away from both I’ve found that Boyhood‘s achievement just resonated more. It affected me immediately and long-term in a deeper way than Birdman. Simple as that.

Should Win: Boyhood

Best Director

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Incredibly, Best Director has split from Best Picture two consecutive years now. If it were to happen again on Sunday that would be the first time, as far as I can tell, since 1935-37. So that’s the history we are looking at here — pre-World War II. And yet, I think the chances are decent. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work on Birdman was far more stylish than Richard Linklater’s on Boyhood. I could easily see the Academy rewarding Inarritu’s directorial pyrotechnics, while Boyhood narrowly beats out his film for Best Picture.

Will Win: Inarritu

Second-Place: Linklater

I’ve gone back and forth on this award as well. Either would be worthy, however I think Linklater is the more deserving. Managing everything that guy had to manage (shooting schedules, child actors, etc.) over twelve years is insane to think about. Mostly, though, the most amazing thing about his movie is that, despite its length and subject matter, Boyhood doesn’t ever feel like its straining for greatness. Everything feels as organic and authentic as possible. Maybe it’s just his personality, but when he speaks about the production there is no pretension. You can tell he just thought it would be a cool idea — and it was. Most directors would realize they are making their masterpiece and try to do too much. Not Linklater.

Should Win: Linklater

Best Actor

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The Screen Actor’s Guild is a highly accurate precursor for the Best Actor Oscar. 2003 was the last time the two diverged, when Sean Penn (Mystic River) won the Oscar over Captain Jack Sparrow himself. Yep, Johnny Depp was the SAG winner that year for the beginning of a never-ending and nonsensical franchise; SAG would probably like to run that one back.

Anyway, we have a legitimate two-horse race in Best Actor for the first time in at least 3-4 years. Eddie Redmayne took home the SAG award for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, while Michael Keaton remains the Mickey Rourke sentimental-comeback choice. Which doesn’t mean he wouldn’t deserve to win; his performance is riveting, nuanced, and electric throughout. But has the Academy fallen too hard for the young British dude to finish Keaton’s story?

I don’t think they have. I’m going with the small upset of Keaton lifting the statuette. Many times, it seems like the industry votes for the person they would most like to see up on stage thanking them. This year, that’s Keaton hands down.

Will Win: Keaton

Second-Place: Redmayne

Redmayne’s is actually the only performance I haven’t seen of these five, but I’m going with Keaton as my choice. I found things to love about the others: Steve Carell’s spellbinding transformation, Bradley Cooper’s hulking complexity, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s ever-so-slight twist on his Sherlock persona. Keaton still stood out to me in Birdman more than the rest of them.

Should Win: Keaton

Best Actress

There’s no need to really even talk about this much: it’s going to Julianne Moore. Like Cate Blanchett last year, this is her award. It may not be coming because of a great movie and it’s serving more as a career achievement award, but it’s Moore’s to lose. She has proved herself remarkably consistent over the years and you can bet the Academy is fine with handing her an Oscar for such a meaty role.

Will Win: Moore

Second-Place: Reese Witherspoon

Although the only performance I saw of the nominees was Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl, I have a feeling she would still be my choice if I had seen all of them. Pike’s lethal range in that movie was the best I saw from a woman in 2014. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Academy enjoyed David Fincher’s film so much, as this was the only Oscar nomination it garnered.

Should Win: Pike

Best Supporting Actor

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Unless Birdman becomes a true juggernaut throughout the night, the winner will quite obviously be Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons for his earth-shattering take on an abusive jazz teacher. I say this because Edward Norton is the spoiler here and I think his chances are better than many think. He’s a much more well-known name, he’s in a film the Academy likes more, and most importantly, he’s really, really good.

Still, Simmons is a career character actor who just submitted the performance of his life. It’s more likely his peers reward him for that than they give every award to Birdman. It was too well-rounded of a year.

Will Win: Simmons

Second-Place: Norton

Those two, Mark Ruffalo, and Ethan Hawke were all fantastic, so it’s kind of difficult to pick one. While I’m often partial to Norton’s work, Simmons was just too irresistible.

Should Win: Simmons

Best Supporting Actress

Similarly, this award is all but locked up for Patricia Arquette, with Birdman and Emma Stone lurking again as a spoiler. Arquette has won all of the precursor awards and I don’t see Stone’s performance being memorable enough to unseat what she brought in Boyhood over a period of 12 years. Keira Knightley was excellent in The Imitation Game, but it’s pretty clear she wasn’t given enough of a platform in that movie to actually win this award.

Will Win: Arquette

Second-Place: Stone

Having seen three of the five nominees, I thought Stone was good-not-great in every scene but one and Knightley did her job without stealing any scenes. I’ll take Arquette for her steady, emotionally and intellectually pitch-perfect work.

Should Win: Arquette

Best Original Screenplay

This is clearly the more stacked of the two writing categories (especially if Whiplash was in Original, as it should’ve been). Boyhood and — to a lesser extent — Birdman doesn’t feel like a writer’s triumph, so this could be a place for the Academy to welcome other options. The Grand Budapest Hotel soared to a surprising nine nominations, so I think this is one of the few it actually wins because of its complex storytelling.

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Second-Place: Birdman

Nightcrawler was my favorite film of the year, so you can guess where I’m going with this choice. Unfortunately, it will need a half-miracle to sneak past the other three strong candidates here.

Should Win: Nightcrawler

Best Adapted Screenplay

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You can probably throw out Inherent Vice (too confusing for audiences predisposed to straightforward naratives) and American Sniper (despite the money its made, the politics and controversy surrounding it have gotten too loud), so that leaves three contenders, each with a decent chance to take it. The Theory of Everything may win Actor and Score, so counting on a third Oscar for a film many see as nowhere near a Picture contender may be a little presumptuous. Then there is the prestige biopic (The Imitation Game) vs. the ballsy indie flick (Whiplash). I really don’t know which way they will lean, but The Imitation Game would be the choice for those looking to spread the wealth around since most of the other Best Picture nominees will likely win something. However, doesn’t The Imitation Game seem like the kind of safe-ish, “Oscar-type” movie that gets a bunch of nominations and no wins?

Will Win: Whiplash

Second-Place: The Imitation Game

I thought American Sniper‘s script was borderline awful, I didn’t see The Theory of Everything, and I just gave my dismissive opinion on The Imitation Game above. Inherent Vice was a blast to watch, even if I didn’t fully understand what was happening half the time (and I read the book, which I’m not sure even matters). I’ll give my (non-existent) award to Whiplash for a screenplay that started off simmering and gradually turned white-hot by the end.

Should Win: Whiplash