Ten to read, five about writing, five to inspire, especially in these times.
For everyone professionally writing these days, Final Draft 11 has everything, from ideas to production. It is so easy to use, you wonder why other software companies haven't created a program easy for the writer to visualize their work. It also gives you the tools to edit, revise, and expand your work: look at the View and Production tabs. All of these capacities empower the writer, and therefore the story. This is a must for every storyteller today.
In light of these writing and trying times of COVID-19, if Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion has been resurrected, I suppose content does matter more than style. According to the IMDB, that movie cost around $60 million and made $75 million in the U.S. and $136 million worldwide. Culturally it felt like the movie disappeared pretty quickly. In 1995, Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak cost around $50 million and made $67 (and $189 million worldwide). I suppose people really do find these movies realistic, or at least timely, and later, memorable, even if they're not the director's best work.
Here are the five movies that mattered most in 2019. They were original, stood on their own, and let us know just how broadly drawn, intimately insightful, and consummate in their use of cinematic techniques mainstream filmmakers can be. In no order, they are:
1. Booksmart. The year's best comedy with one of the best comedic screenplays in a long time. This film contained wall-to-wall laughs with great performances and brilliantly shaped scenes start to finish.
2. Uncut Gems. The Safdie brothers craft one of the most original movies of the year with music, laughs, and a steady thrum of urgency. Adam Sandler leads a cast that embody their roles and keep us in their taut worlds.
The Irishman. Martin Scorsese's epic seized on Charles Brandt's book with screenwriter Steven Zaillian and the two, with cinematographer Rodriego Prieto, created the best historical drama in years. It contained the actor's finest performances tailored to the story.
Parasite. Bong Joon-Ho's film was culturally specific and universal in its appeal, showing a society through three families. It was expertly paced and crafted with not one false move on all levels of filmmaking.
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino shows again how fresh and exhilarating he can be while structurally throwing curveballs at the audience. He got brilliant performances that walk the line between camp and the seriously dramatic, all while sticking to a story and keeping the audience guessing for nearly three hours.
One of the great things about films, and aging, is that one can re-watch a movie more than two decades after seeing it and it feels fresh, anew, and triggers recall probably more than any other medium, at least for this writer and many he knows. Then there's commentary by someone who had a similar experience. Reading Charles Bramesco's article in The Guardian on Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, we see his point. If memory serves, the director claimed at the time to "hold up a mirror to society" with the provocative film. It was his most provocative to date, and though the last portion drags, it swirls you up into its hysteria once again.
1994, the year NBK came out, was quite an interesting year for American movies. The mainstream got better, with Forrest Gump, Clear and Present Danger, and True Lies, standing along side Pulp Fiction, Clerks, and The Last Seduction. Moviemaking seemed to be open territory to all who could, and Hollywood directors churned out well-told stories. Looking back twenty-five years later, it appears a romantic time.
Then I see David Fear's article in Rolling Stone on David Fincher's Fight Club after twenty years. 1999 was also a giant year for American movies with American Beauty, the Best Picture winner, showing next to The Insider, Three Kings, Eyes Wide Shut, and Being John Malkovich. Years later I discovered Sharon Waxman's excellent book on what led to that culmination of cinema. So we peel back layers of cinema, and a decade, and a time many still remember, it seems, quite clearly. That is but one of the powers of film's evocation.
With five weeks of summer left, it is time to be inspired and look ahead. That's why I'm head to The Future of Story, held this year in Minneapolis. It is time to meet amazing authors and draw inspiration from these people. It is unduplicatable. Join us! The rewards stay with you.
One of the things R. R. Campbell and I talked about was the writing process: http://writescast.net/2019/03/06/new-guest-confirmed-dave-watson. Sitting through Pokemon Detective Pikachu yesterday, that movie's plot was indeed surprising yet inevitable. So were all the trailers for the upcoming summer blockbusters. I stopped counting at six. Though barely memorable, Godzilla of all monsters had the most striking images. I don't think anyone predicted that.
The day of the Oscars, and the top five films that mattered most of 2018 are listed not in order of importance and, collectively, will endure:
1. Roma: the likely Best Picture Oscar winner, shows masterful, innovative filmmaking. It deserves a re-release in theaters and shown everywhere.
2. First Reformed: Pauls Schrader's film connected ideas like no other. His film was also authentic and its heart beat solidly throughout. It applies to so many in and outside American borders.
3. Blackkklansmen: One of Spike Lee's best films told a straight story, tying it beautifully to the present. The director went out on a limb and stayed true to himself.
4. Widows: Also innovative filmmaking while Steve McQueen aimed high with his directorial choices, especially with his camera work, and held up an emblem of many facets to American society.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Wonderful storytelling start to finish. Three directors collaborated and came up with a fresh look, feel, and execution to a genre once thought to be tired. It sure isn't with fresh voices.
2018 proved the year of the director. Each of them had their indelible stamp on the above. They also showed powerful storytelling in vastly different ways and from different cultural angles. One final note: twelve years ago, The New Yorker's Anthony Lane said, "Something was afoot in Mexican filmmaking." Alfonso Cuaron, likely the winner for Best Director, released Children of Men that year, and seven years later followed it up with Gravity. He, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, have proven him right.
I keep thinking of one scene in The Shape of Water, and I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere, so maybe we see what we want to see. It's when the car salesmen talks to (not with) Michael Shannon. The crispness and repetition is undeniably influenced by David Mamet. When that unequivocally stands out, what does that say about the rest of the movie?
In this era of the latest Avengers blockbuster, which was preceded by Black Panther (and deservedly so apparently), you see an emulation that's really a salute to dialogue master Mamet. He's a distinctive voice, especially when it comes to movie dialogue. Recall when Jack Lemmon said he liked the screenplay of Glengarry Glen Ross better than the play, as did I. Or, there's the dialogue of The Insider, by Eric Roth and Michael Mann. Whatever the effects, I don't hear many movies quoted these days. The reasons why must be many. Maybe it's the swarm of effects. Maybe the rapid-fire scenes that aren't reduced to their essence. Or, best guess, we're so caught up in mass-market commodities on such a grand scale, we all stream or see so many different things that we don't really connect through the movies anymore. The short conversation usually starts and soon stops with, "Have you seen that?"
You could judge these by filmmaking or cultural impact. Or by what will be remembered in years to come, regardless of who wins what tomorrow night at the Oscars. The one that mattered most is listed first; the next four in no particular order. The five movies that mattered most in 2017 are:
1. I, Tonya. Craig Gillespie's film built and sustained headlong energy that touched on class, values, and the amateur athletic establishment. The filmmaking and performances were equal to one another. You couldn't distinguish what was so great about this movie, and why it stays with us long after seeing it. It's impenetrable.
2. The Florida Project. This is as close to perfect storytelling as you're going to get in 2017. The movie shows us a crucial slice of life, with desperate lives that can explore and show the full range of emotions.
3. Blade Runner 2049. Yes, barely a non-white person is evident in this movie that surpasses its original. Denis Villeneuve's film may lack the social commentary of the original, or does it? This film succeeded on so many technical levels and enveloped us with its atmosphere, this dystopia could be what we're headed for. It also handled all the suggestions of what lurks within and in front of us all so well, we were still able to imagine. That is no small accomplishment.
4. Get Out. A superior thriller that intertwined interactions, behavior, beliefs, and chief of all, assumptions, while sticking to its story start to finish. Not many films you can say that about.
5. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is a film for the time we live in. Another foreign director has taken his surmise of the American south and come up with an original story. The character arcs are there, even if believability is occasionally at bay. It's important to see this side of America in this present day and age.
**Note: The Shape of Water and Coco reviews are forthcoming, and surveying the reactions to these films, especially the latter, should be remembered by everyone who sees them.
Please to announce Movies Matter Books! As a long-time admirer of Michael Wiese Productions, I am truly fortunate to partner with them in many ways over the years. They are a wonderful company with innovative authors who continue the tradition of great storytelling. Most importantly, they empower everyone around them.
Based on the Golden Globes, the Oscars should be big this year. There will be entertainment (William Friedkin said in an interview with Movie Geeks United, "It's not called 'Show Art,' it's a business." The business is to have you anticipate what will happen. I suspect more messages for the current president and administration, and has Oprah been asked to present yet? You think?
Only the skies know who will be recognized for Best Picture tomorrow. The one sure-fire nominee and likely winner is Gary Oldman for The Darkest Hour. Otherwise, little movies that could such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, and Lady Bird are the only real dramatic forces.
2017 will also not be remembered as a year for comedies. In narrowing down to a top five, the best genre of the year was thrillers. Those don't win many awards, and if done poorly, they seem a close second to comedies as the hardest movies to make. Remember, Hitchcock never won an Oscar.
When and where exactly did the onslaught toward men in power who inappropriately conducted themselves toward women, and men in the case of Kevin Spacey, start? Friends and I have talked and it must have been last year when Americans elected a man married a few times had acted this way to many women over the course of his seventy-plus years. Outside of the many women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein, Al Francken, Garrison Keillor and Charlie Rose among others, thousands of women are also running for public office across the country. One theory is since the president is protected by many laws, many other men are not immune to finally getting their comeuppance. Remember, many of these situations happened years ago, and many have stayed silent, and for once the timing is not used to deflect away from what's important. Anyone who's seen the great documentary The Hunting Ground knows all about it. Something tells me we'll also know much more in this "Who's Next?" scenario for months if not years to come.
Reading Derek Thompson's Hit Makers: the Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, this bright author has such a thirst for knowledge it's infectious. Then there's a quote toward the end that sticks out: "The art of film is film, but the business of movies is everywhere." The insight was provided by Kay Kamen, one of Walt Disney's great associates back in the thirties and forties. Even in down economic times such as The Great Depression, Disney did extraordinarily well, somehow making films such as Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937, appeal worldwide.
You always wonder what's going to make a global impact through film. Blockbusters such as Wonder Woman seem good enough, but are they lasting? In this case, yes, if only because it's the first female to have a superhero movie all to herself in a long time. That's good, and we sense better is out there for this sub-genre.
You know, maybe the biggest loss of Scaramucci, the seventh high-profile administration official to step down or be fired from the Trump cabinet, is that the only emerging storyline, and this is a gradual one, is that our president cannot decide how to navigate or steer this office. There is no other really clear story here. The villains, you can choose for various reasons, and they are the most important and often the most interesting characters. The heroes, take your pick. There are plenty of supporting characters, who are indeed shapeshifters.
It's also hard to think of a political film that would resonate today. Wag the Dog now looks tame compared to this arena. That made Seven Days in May or The Manchurian Candidate (the original) look tenable, even possible. I suppose we could look to Dr. Strangelove, but that may be too close, and remember, rumor had it that Stanley Kubrick, the director, didn't tell Slim Pickens, that wild-eyed actor, it was a comedy.
When Jonathan Demme passed away at 73 on April 26th, he'd had quite a prolific career on and off the mainstream radar. I remember seeing him interviewed by MTV right after Stop Making Sense, accurately deemed the ultimate concert film, was released. The interviewer said Demme used to be a rock critic before becoming a filmmaker. Demme seemed down to earth, reasonable, in his head, processing how to best answer the questions posed to him. His breakout film was Melvin and Howard, released in late 1980 and garnering two Oscars. Four years later Stop Making Sense made its way across the country, and I remember well in April 1985, with eighth grade winding down, going to the Bijou and seeing it with a good friend. He and I didn't know the band Talking Heads too well, but boy what a way to bring a band and music to life. That movie presented a band and director in control of the material, without a false move, from start to finish. Not sure if I'd say it was revolutionary as much as it was evolutionary, keeping cameras trained on the stage and musicians. I believe many audience members forgot about the cameras because the editing was so seamless and in step with the music and what we were thinking while we watched.
Another friend soon thereafter hooked up his VCR to his TV. He taped the entire movie, and we played it long after it was out of theaters. Demme balanced light and dark forces with Something Wild, one of the first times Jeff Daniels was front-and-center with another budding star, Melanie Griffith, with a juicy supporting turn by Ray Liotta (His role came to mind when De Niro and Scorsese were banding about ideas for casting Goodfellas). The disappointing, flimsy Married to the Mob was a slight misstep though not a disaster in tone. Then came The Silence of the Lambs in the spring of 1991. That's endured ever since. It's been studied, doesn't grow old for many, and swept the Oscars, beating out Bugsy and JFK for Best Picture. Philadelphia was solid, and I recall the director sidestepping criticisms of how it portrayed the gay community, saying he wouldn't let that phase him.
He had an incomprehensible misstep with the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), a watered-down version of the classic. Beloved (1998) was liked by critics and not many others. In the end, he had his aces and his misgivings, which is why many follow directors. They are human, and that's why their movies, and careers, matter.
Anyone who's followed the Oscars knows a little, but not much, and probably not enough of what and who makes up the Academy's voting members. Michael Schulman's article in The New Yorker chronicles the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' battle with diversity, voter purges, and how its president, Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, has handled the voting makeup of the Academy. Then there's the show itself, battling stigmas to keep it fresh, starting with its length. I expect the star turnout to be pretty low tonight. People will watch to see how diverse the votes turn out, especially in our political climate over the last five weeks. But will it have an impact on your average watcher? That's where people have to vote with their feet, see what they want to see, in the theater and nowhere else over the course of a year. So the Oscars are really a snapshot, but a poignant one, and the prestige seems to last. Many remember The Hurt Locker's parade through film festivals seven years ago. Slumdog Millionaire's stands out as one of its kind in North America, and The Artist was a triumphant throwback. So these winners endure, and matter to us.
When it comes to awards season, the coveted Oscars just around the corner, many outside the industry seem not sure how much weight to give the ceremony. In the words of one friend, millionaires give awards to millionaires, salaries go up, campaigns have been waged, and...this year actually, where La La Land remains the favorite to win, might lose because of a pattern. You know what that is: Hilary was predicted the presidential election by everyone, including the dependable Nate Silver. The Atlanta Falcons were up 28-3 in the third quarter of the Super Bowl and managed to lose. If Moonlight wins, it would fit. It's also the movie that pertains to a specific American experience, and that of an individual surrounded by real characters, who embody real people.
That said, the top movies that mattered the most in 2016 were:
1. A Man Called Ove. Rarely have I seen a film pull emotions in so many ways, describe and show humanity and community and daily life on so many levels and employing all the cinematic techniques.
2. Moonlight. This movie took an often-shown place and characters and made them completely original, and the story memorable. The movie never stepped wrong, didn't overstay its welcome, and left so much up for interpretation from such a straight-forward story. The performances, the emotions they displayed and evoked, live on long past you experienced them.
3. Sing. The best animated film of the year was on a high-wire and never looked down, or around. It combined everything, and mostly it conveyed a message in a special way. Art has to continue despite everything, and will.
4. Hidden Figures. Sometimes you think it takes a particular leader, or president, to set things in motion. I'd sure like to think that this long-ignored story, released in 2016, will inspire many. It works on so many levels, with just-right performances, writing, acting, and directing, that it will stand the test of time. It already has.
5. Cafe Society. The year's best comedy showed that after eighty, Woody Allen is still rummaging around in the trunk of romance, pulling out threads that all people feel. He chose a particular time and place for his style, and never fails to make these particular characters human. The man still knows what makes us tick.
Though I have yet to see the film, Damien Chazelle's La La Land looks likely to win Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes tonight. Why? It's a feel-good movie that takes people away. It shows resurrection. It uplifts. For Drama, I'm thinking either Manchester by the Sea or Fences. Serious issues such as family and race, of struggles between generations, if done well, have awards written all over them. Then there are the awards themselves. In this era of economic disparity, in the words of one friend, we watch millionaires give awards to other millionaires. At the end of the day, though, these movies mater for the aforementioned reasons. All three take us away an appear to be very specific in all their storytelling choices, which is why they matter to many.
I still remember nineteen years ago to this day seeing one of the great satires of our time. Barry Levinson's Wag The Dog had big buzz and opened to much fanfare on January 2, 1998. I saw it on a rainy Sunday afternoon on this exact date at The Neptune in Seattle. The crowd seemed thirty and up, most were casually dressed, and there was a hum and few snickers as the opening statements appeared on the screen. That was just it: they were unattributed quotes, telling us a metaphor about the world we live in. Then the movie started with a political ad before introducing us to Conrad Breen, "Mr. Fix-it," as he enters the White House.
Re-watching this film for the third time this weekend, how specific the choices are in this film, along with how efficient it is, never ceases to amaze me. There are little asides that are consistent, as when we pull up to Stanly Moss's mansion and the White House operative says, "This is bigger than the White House." The plot moves along, as when the Albanian footage is staged, the CIA tracks our little crusaders down, and so on. There's not a wasted shot or line in the film, and still holds true today. Does it ever.
We all left the theater, thoroughly enjoyed and fulfilled after a mere ninety-five minutes. This film was for the sophisticated, but there are levels to it. There are things in the background you miss the first time, such as the immigration/immigrant theme. I thought about these things long after the movie, when I bought a CD, went home and cranked it, and considered what an achievement I'd seen. We all want a Conrad Breen or Stanley Moss in our lives, especially in tough times when we want to say, "This is nothing." I still do.
I don't know how many forecasted a Trump victory, but it happened. I'm not sure why people don't vote, but it happens. What do all those people in Florida and other key states instead of voting anyway? Regardless, the underdog won, cue the protests, and the little-mentioned fact that the Democratic presidential candidate has won the popular vote in the last seven elections. I remember Bill Clinton garnering 43% to Bush's 38% in '92 and that was broadcast as a landslide. It wasn't, and this one has angered many people, or allowed them to simply unleash it. There's a new article in Rolling Stone about why the protests matter. It's like the side story that emerges. The outcome of these protests is really what matters.
In the third presidential debate, Donald Trump strongly suggested he would not concede defeat if he lost the election. He said he would look at the results and keep us in suspense. A strange answer, and maybe a brilliant one: he effectively cast himself as the victim of a corrupt system. Many feel that way. Otherwise, I cannot see enduring reasons for his recent spike in polls in states such as Florida and Ohio. He even campaigned in Wisconsin. Iowa went from supporting Hilary to leaning Trump in the last two weeks. All this is according to Nate Silver's Project 538 site.
So...did Donald know what he was doing in that third debate? You know, the third one he lost in a row? Maybe, because it, or something else he's done, has bolstered his ratings, which puzzles me. Do we really want someone who plays victim to lead, or a person who has endured over time and not whined? I guess the sympathy card for people, even when it comes to people with more money than most by far.
I saw the trailer for The Accountant a few months ago and was immediately intrigued. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, based on a worldwide bestselling series, looked poised to take us away to a different world altogether. The Girl on the Train looked like a sassy thriller and starred the reliable Emily Blunt. All three of these movies have not hit homeruns with critics. Why? People see the trailer, take half an afternoon or an evening, pay a fair amount and see them in the theater. They don't leave singing songs, but by and large are fairly satisfied, I guess. So, the trailers do succeed. Which ties back to short films. this takes to pictures that say a thousand words, even if a two-hour movie doesn't.
Movie previews, in the theater, on TV, a computer, or phone, are supposed to get you in the theater. They have to be memorable, and for that to happen they have to be familiar yet unfamiliar. I'm in the thick of reading The Girl on the Train and the movie has opened to generally bad reviews. The preview itself shows a combination of Rear Window and Fatal Attraction. The story reflects what many of us experience on our morning and evening commutes: we wonder about others greet briefly before moving on. So the premise is strong enough and should appeal to a wide variety of people who do the same thing as part of a routine no matter how many work from home or remotely. The story is also circular, gradually encroaching on a climax we sense coming but remains elusive. This is all fine and dandy. The director, Tate Taylor, did the splendid The Help and Get On Up. This may be a case of The Devil's Candy, when Julie Salomon followed Brian De Palma in making The Bonfire of the Vanities, where a studio influences a production start to finish. There a director gradually lost control. I don't know, but somewhere the story, in trying to appeal to its wide audience, lost its specificity, which will alienate its wide audience. The book is particular and creates admirable, flawed humans who soldier on in trying times no matter the point of view. That's why the book matters, the movie may not.
We've seen Sully do solidly in three weeks of release. Apparently it takes the hero story an unexpected direction, especially for those who saw the story in the news. Kudos to the filmmakers, then. One of the most anticipated fall releases, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children did not so well, but the quality is not news. Tim Burton has lacked story principles and depth for his three-plus decade career as a director. Beetlejuice, the first Batman, and Edward Scissorhands all came out within three years of each other. They are memorable for their images and worlds, and Edward as an idea for a characcter. Now Miss Peregrine takes us to another world and...that's about it. In an interview with Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis, Rona was quick to answer that characters are what separate great from good movies. The preview had me excited, but the movie looked packed. This may be good for Burton, if Miss Peregrine crashes with a ready-set audience. He could make something along the lines of Ed Wood. Or spend a boatload of time creating people.