The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part V: #5-1

#5: Django Unchained:


I’m going to make a statement sure to spark some controversy among my friend group: Django Unchained is the best film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Whereas Pulp Fiction represents the writer-director as a youthful force to be reckoned with, with its disjointed narrative structure, extended “cool guy” monologues, and general influence on the filmmaking landscape of the 1990s, Django is Tarantino at his most refined as a filmmaker. The story is the most straightforward and linear of any Tarantino script, the character motivations are real, true and easy to understand, and the direction does not cave to some of his more indulgent behaviors.

My main gripe with Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, was not its example of “revisionist history,” but that it revised history so extensively. I mean, they kill Hitler and end WWII. In Django, Tarantino wisely tells a much smaller tale: its title character, a freed slave, does not end the institution of slavery, but he brings emancipation to a few select people in his circle, and in this way, becomes a relatable hero.

Tarantino also provides us with some unexpected moments of gravitas amid the gleeful manipulation of genre tropes and anachronisms: Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” plays, and we hear the words, “…and I carry it with my like my Daddy did.” At the same moment, Django is presented with his very own saddle, brandished with his first initial. It’s an incredibly touching moment: here is a slave, a man whose humanity was stripped form him, whose name was not handed down but was forced upon him, now able to establish that name as a free man.

The performances, as with most Tarantino films, are excellent: Christoph Waltz, in particular, steals the show quietly from his scene-chewing peers Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz’s character, King Schultz, may also be one of the few Tarantino characters who both begins and ends the film as a totally decent person committed to real morals. As a screenwriter, Tarantino’s greatest strength here is his restraint: he’s smart enough to know what can be joked about and what can’t when it comes to the horrors of the Antebellum South, and he shows maturity in presenting even some of the vilest characters as people to be taken seriously (except, of course, for those buffoonish KKK members).

#4: Whiplash


This most terrifying film I saw in 2014, Whiplash remains a haunting and unsettling piece of cinema. Its ending, praised not just for its technical merits, but as a triumphant, inspiring, and uplifting conclusion, is sorely misunderstood. At the heart of this film is the question, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where every jazz musician is aspiring to be selected for Terence Fletcher’s (an imposing J.K. Simmons) studio band. Andrew is no different: he idolizes jazz greats like Buddy Rich and toils away in lesser school bands, longing for his chance to prove his worth to Fletcher at whatever personal or moral cost. Fletcher is sadistic in his methods, often citing a story about Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head by Jo Jones, and Parker’s subsequent growth into one of the greats as a result of the embarrassment. Fletcher sees his role as having to “push people beyond what’s expected of them,” and his extreme lengths take Andrew to his physical and mental breaking points.

At the film’s conclusion, Andrew overcomes Fletcher’s deliberate on-stage sabotage, unleashing a ferocious and groundbreaking drum solo that instantly connects teacher and pupil in a transcendental experience. In that moment, Andrew refuses to leave his recital and put Fletcher’s betrayal behind or beneath him. We see one last image of Andrew’s father shrinking away from the stage doors, horrified at the transformation he’s just seen in his son, unable to recognize what Andrew is becoming. The message of the film is twofold:
1) Fletcher’s method “worked,” but does that make it the right method? Did the ends justify the means?
2) From Andrew’s perspective, is it worth it? To be “great,” is it worth losing one’s soul? Did the means justify the ends?

#3: Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


I’ll never understand why Birdman became a movie accused of “pretention,” but Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was not accused of the same. Birdman turned the 2014-15 awards season on its head, pulling ahead of critical darling Boyhood and eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar. This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Academy’s general aversion to rewarding comedies, let alone hard-bitten, cynical satires.

Make no mistake: Birdman is a comedy, and often a very funny one. Michael Keaton (playing a meta version of himself) and Edward Norton (doing the same) fist fighting in their underwear borders on farcical, and it’s a sight to behold.

Speaking of sights to behold, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning, getting within mere inches of actors’ faces, capturing such minute details and subtleties in the performances that it’s unlike any film you’ve seen.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a mentally unstable former movie star whose on-screen superhero persona, Birdman, haunts him in more ways than one. The specter of his cartoony films looms over his efforts to adapt a serious Raymond Carver production for Broadway, where critics are waiting to revile him. What’s more, he’s hearing voices—specifically, the voice of Birdman. The triumph of director Alejandro G. Inarritu is in adding to the mystery of it all: it appears to us as though Riggan actually has the superpowers that Birdman had. Is Riggan a superhero among us, or are we as the audience watching his own delusions and hallucinations?

Birdman has a lot to say, about the nature of criticism, the effects of age on a career, the appreciation of art, and whether we misdiagnose the unstable as the “brilliant.”

Continue reading The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part V: #5-1


The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part IV: #10-6

#10: Hero (Ying xiong)


Director Zhang Yimou takes the template of Kurosawa’s classic “Rashomon” and expands upon it, weaving a tale of politics and love of homeland into this visually stunning parable.

A nameless soldier (Jet Li) is summoned before the king of Qin, who is in the midst of trying to conquer all the kingdoms of China and is suspicious of spies from rival kingdoms. Nameless, as he is known, has expertly killed three assassins from the kingdom of Zhao, and the king demands to know how he accomplished the feat. We flash back to Nameless’ account of the events, wherein all the characters are color-coded in shades of red.

The king listens attentively, and decides Nameless is lying. He concocts his own version of events, wherein Nameless and the three assassins worked together to advance him to the king’s throne room, where Nameless might murder the king. In this version of events, the sets and costumes are all blue.

Finally, the truth is revealed, and the relationships and motivations of all involved are more complex than either of the false narratives. Nameless makes his stand against the king—and allows his words and his life to communicate his beliefs.

This is the kind of movie that could only be made in an international market. The sheer scope of the sets, costumes, extras, and narrative technique are awe-inspiring. The acting and action choreography is spot-on, and the decision to support it all with a passionate plea for unity gives the film some well-earned gravitas.

#9: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


Released in 2007, along with neo-westerns “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” “The Assassination of Jesse James” was in many ways left buried under the praise of other films, despite quietly being the best of the three.

Director Andrew Dominik tales his time with this narrative, charting the assimilation of awkward, obsessed youngster Robert Ford (a powerhouse Casey Affleck) into the gang of the aging, existential and increasingly paranoid Jesse James (Brad Pitt). James has seen his legend grow even while he is still alive, with mostly made-up stories of his “Robin Hood” heroics filling dime store novels for kids and adults alike.

James tries to lay low under a false identity and assume the role of husband and father, but he has a need to pull off the occasional heist. During his robberies, Ford begins to see the real James, even as this epiphany cracks the veneer of heroism and celebrity Ford has built up in his mind. Slowly, James begins to experience a sense of strange destiny, that Ford will play a Judas character in his demise, and the middle third of the film consists mostly of James and Ford’s psychological warfare. James test Ford, berates him, then allows his to come slinking back.

Eventually, Ford follows through on a plan to kill his hero, and where the film really excels is in dealing with the fallout of that decision on Ford’s life. He regrets his actions, he misses his friend, he becomes a pariah, and he never achieves any form of notoriety—at least not the kind he always wanted.

Dominik’s decision to use an omniscient narrator is bold but pays off, particularly in the denouement. Cinematographer Roger Deakins turns in some of his best work here, making “Assassination” as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the mind.

#8: The Revenant


A movie mercilessly mocked in the far corners of the Internet, both for its nonexistent “bear rape” and its star’s “endless grunting and flailing,” “The Revenant” enjoyed tremendous box office and critical success before being almost immediately reconsidered. Well, there’s no need.

This is a singular piece of cinema. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is in complete control of his craft, and if one reads some horror stories about the film’s lengthy production, it’s easy to see how this vision stretched even beyond the bounds of the camera. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is, as always, breathtaking, if this time more than a bit showy. His insistence on spherical lenses give the whole enterprise a slightly uneasy feeling.

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays a fictionalized version of a real trapper named Hugh Glass, who was left for dead after a mauling by a bear, betrayed by his fellow fur trapper John Fitzgerald (ed Hardy). Glass must trek across the frozen plains and mountains to return to camp before his injuries or the elements get the better of him, while also avoiding French soldiers and Native American tribes.

Inarritu and Mark L. Smith develop Glass’ survival story into something more–a meditation on life, death, and the supernatural. It’s also a tale of conflicting worldviews: the hubris of Fitzgerald, who thinks he is bigger than God, in control of his own destiny, and the humility of Glass, literally brought low by his injuries, but also grounded by his connection to the afterlife through repeated visions of his dead wife.

What struck me most about the film, well beyond its excellent battle choreography, famed long takes, and brutally effective performances, was how deeply theological it chooses to be. This is an action film with a brain and more than a few questions to ask.

#7: The Dark Knight


Another film that took over popular culture in such frenzy that we sometimes forget how downright great it is on its own merits.

Christopher Nolan wisely lets the character of The Joker (a brilliant Heath Ledger) steer the movie both in narrative and in theme. Far from being another “superhero” movie, this is a film about mythologies, both those we know and those we create. In the Batman universe, the character played by Bruce Wayne has to be a symbol, and this film deals with the harsh truth that in order to do the right thing, sometimes one has to be willing to be seen as a villain.

“The Dark Knight” changed the landscape of film over the last decade. The move toward “darker” heroes (of both the super and non-super varieties) can be largely traced to the post 9/11 “Jason Bournes” of the world, and not in small part to this 2008 gem.

#6: Up in the Air


The second film in the top 25 from director Jason Reitman, neither of which are called “Juno.” Reitman is at the height of his powers here, guiding the subject matter expertly between comedy, tragedy, cynicism, and pathos.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country as a “consultant” for large corporations, where his sole task is firing people in a face-to-face setting when the businesses are too cowardly to do so. New to his firm is upstart Natalie (Anna Kendrick) whose enthusiasm and ambition know no bounds. Natalie wants to transition out those in Ryan’s position in favor of firing people remotely over the internet. To prove the value of his position, Ryan convinces his bosses to allow Natalie to shadow him.

Ryan is a man, as the film’s tagline cleverly states, “looking for a connection.” This is a reference to his frequent-flyer life, where he’s learned to (literally and figuratively) shed all excess baggage, living out of a suitcase and maintaining few personal relationships. However, it’s also a reference to his obvious longing for something more: he works on behalf of cold, faceless corporations, advocating for a personal touch in terminating employees, and while everyone around him looks to escape their personal lives (including sometime love interest Alex, played by Vera Farmiga), ryan is looking to find one.

Reitman plays up the feelings of isolation in all his characters’ lives, and both the ugliness of the job and the constant airport settings feed into the atmosphere. It would be easy for “Up in the Air” to dip into unbridled cynicism and become hard-bitten, but the injection of laughs–even sarcastic ones–add touches of humanity to the proceedings. This movie is both touching and heartbreaking, and it feels just as timely almost a decade later as it did in the midst of the Great Recession.

The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part III: #15-11

#15: The Hunt (Jagten)


This emotional and profound drama from Denmark concerns Lucas (Mads Mikkelson), a schoolteacher struggling through divorce. Lucas is a caring educator, but his young student Klara soon ruins his life after lying about being molested by Lucas. Soon, his small town has turned against him, understandably believing the lie though we as the audience know better.

Mikkelson is excellent here, bucking against his usual type of the cunning killer or villain. He’s vulnerable, emotional, and takes us with him on a journey into being an outcast.

#14: Life of Pi


Maybe it’s the theology major in me, but this has remained a film that’s constantly on my mind, more than five years since I first experienced it. Rare is the movie that carries a big budget, an Oscar-winning director, and cutting/edge effects, while backing it all up with deep philosophical questions.

Pi Patel (an excellent Suraj Sharma) is stranded at sea after a storm sinks the ship carrying his family from India to Canada. The only other survivors are a number of zoo animals from the ship’s cargo. Soon, Pi is sharing his lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

The film is told from the perspective of a much older Pi, using his story of survival to frame the debate about God’s existence. His conclusion: there are two ways of seeing the world, and we each choose the narrative we find most compelling.

#13: Inception


“Inception” is one of those movies that becomes a parody of itself. Like “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and even “The Dark Knight” before it, “Inception” had a hold on popular culture in a way few films can achieve. The droning “wahs” of Hans Zimmer’s score, the trademark intercutting of three storylines by director Christopher Nolan, the proliferation of “it was all a dream” theories—they can all be found here.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a widower with a suppressed past, who leads a team of highly-trained specialist in the field of extraction—essentially a form of infiltrating the mind of a subject while he or she sleeps to extract important information for high-priced clientele. This process is achieved by drugging the subject before the whole extraction crew shares the dream space of one person, rendering them capable of manipulating the subject’s dream to their benefit.

After a botched extraction on shady CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe), Cobb’s team is tasked with making amends by pulling one last job working on Saito’s behalf. The catch: not to extract an idea, but to plant one inside the mind of a rival businessman, thus inspiring him to get out of the game and leave the spoils for Saito. Of course, this process, called “inception,” is complicated by a number of obstacles, not the least of which is the manifestation of Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who crops up in Cobb’s dream world to torment him and jeopardizes the mission’s success.

Nolan is at his absolute peak as a storyteller here, creating characters who feel both fully-formed and yet guarded, a compelling story arc, and a universe with clear rules. Part of the difficulty of Cobb’s mission is having to drill so deep into his subject’s subconscious that the team must implant the idea in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream. By the film’s climax, the audience is watching three separate dreamscapes, each with their own challenges and complications, edited together into a dizzying spell of narrative craft.

#12: Finding Nemo


I was as surprised as anyone to see this film so high in my list, which began with a process where I assigned films a score out of 100. Thinking maybe I’d rated “Finding Nemo” too high, I decided to hold it up head-to-head against others in the top 25, and when I asked myself, “Which one would you rather watch on any given day,” I found that Pixar’s 2003 effort was just as good as the numbers indicated.

Pixar was in the middle of its incredible stretch of great films, beginning with “Toy Story 2” and extending through “Ratatouille,” but something about the simplicity of this story resonates with both critics and audiences. The plot, in a nutshell: a widower clownfish named Marlin (voiced expertly by Albert Brooks) teams up with Dory, a blue tang with memory issues, to find Nemo, Marlin’s only son and the victim of an abduction.

By keeping the story simple, writer/director Andrew Stanton is able to introduce a constant stream of new characters who serve the plot and provide neat little chapters on Marlin and Dory’s journey. What makes the whole thing work, though, is the pervading sense that our main characters need each other. Marlin sees Nemo as the last link to his wife, Nemo possesses a deformed fin symbolic of the fear instilled in him by his overprotective father, and Dory is an outcast without a future or a past. As we meet new characters throughout the film, we begin to get a sense of what constitutes a family, and we’re rooting not just for Nemo’s rescue, but for these three to find the fulfillment of community.

#11: Cinderella Man


“Cinderella Man,” the film, is as much an underdog as its subject, boxing champion James J. Braddock. Despite positive reviews, this 2005 Ron Howard effort saw its awards hopes derailed by star Russell Crowe’s assault controversy, nabbing Oscar nominations only for makeup, editing, and Paul Giamatti’s brilliant supporting turn.

Howard’s direction shows the relentlessness of Great Depression-era hardship, following Braddock (Crowe) from affluent champion to disgraced and destitute. To help keep the lights on in the shack his family has been forced into, Braddock works the docks and accepts government aid, while trying to reestablish himself as a fighter. The only manager willing to give him a shot is Joe Gould (Giamatti), who writes Braddock in as a last-minute punching bag against the world’s second-ranked fighter. Shockingly, Braddock wins, and keeps winning, garnering public support in the process. Eventually, he must match up against hulking champion Max Baer, whose punishing blows have killed fighters in the ring.

The major successes here are twofold. First, Howard takes his time in developing the film, ensuring that even when it falls into the familiar beats of a feel-good sports flick, the audience is invested. By showing in an unflinching light the depths of the Depression and its effects on Braddock, his family, and the nation, viewers understand what Braddock is fighting for—and what he is up against. Second, the performances are uniformly excellent across the board. The script is about as strong as its predictable narrative allows it to be, which is to say there’s potential for hokey-ness throughout. Without the commitment of Crowe, Giamatti, and an underappreciated Renee Zellweger, the movie just wouldn’t work. Fortunately for us, it does, and it is arguably the best sports film of the past two decades.

The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part II: #20-16

#20: Gone Baby Gone


One of the more underappreciated films on this list, director Ben Affleck’s debut is a powerhouse of moral cinema. Far removed from its police-procedural and noir trappings, the story is interested in big questions. After a four-year-old girl goes missing, PIs Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) investigate the kidnapping, leading to ethical dilemmas for themselves and all involved. Blessed with a stellar supporting cast (including Oscar nominee Amy Ryan, Morgan Freeman, and Ed Harris), this one will leave you pondering long after its final frames.

#19: Good Night, and Good Luck.


If you want to write a screenplay, start here. George Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov perfectly encapsulate the fast-paced world of a TV newsroom, the lives of its workers, and the general panic of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, while devoting large chunks of time to legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow’s actual monologues nearly verbatim. Clooney takes bold risks as a director, structuring the film almost as if it’s a 1950s broadcast, complete with clips of early commercials. He shoots the film in black-and-white (with metric tons of cigarette smoke) to maintain the overall aesthetic. The cast, including David Strathairn, Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr., and Patricia Clarkson, is first-rate. But this is a movie that thrives on words. Watch it with subtitles to get the most out of every powerful Murrow polemic. While print media has gotten attention as of late in films like “Spotlight” and “The Post,” this one might quietly be the best film about the responsibilities of journalism this century.

#18: Coco


It’s a little premature for this one, and I have a feeling it will get pushed down the list a bit as time passes, but for me, this is Pixar’s best film in a decade. Unlike the traditional “find your individuality” tropes of Disney films, their Pixar division continues to find ways of affirming the importance of community. “Coco” is not just a love letter to Mexican culture, it’s also a thoughtful and mature meditation on death, remembrance, and family.

#17: Warrior


Against all odds, this mixed martial arts-themed film, funded in part by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, succeeds as so much more than a run-of-the-mill sports movie. Its characters are fully-formed, fundamentally-flawed people. At its heart is the story of a broken family, the deep psychological hurts inflicted by abusive parenting, and the ways grown people cope with past traumas.

Nick Nolte turns in a career-best performance as Paddy Conlon, training his drug-addict prodigal son Tommy to compete in a prestigious MMA tournament. Meanwhile, Paddy’s other son, Brendan, fights to supply another source of income for his family and works hard to establish himself as the stable and present father Paddy never could be. Of course, the two brothers must eventually square off in the octagon, and their fight is not simply physical, but an exorcism of their personal demons, an airing of their grievances with each other, their lives, their circumstances, and their past abuses.

This is masterful, heart-wrenching filmmaking, and easily one of the very best sports films in recent memory.

#16: Young Adult


Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, following the success of their film Juno, re-teamed to produce this biting, vicious dark comedy. Charlize Theron is pitch-perfect as Mavis Gary, a semi-successful author who returns to her Minnesota hometown after a bitter divorce and a slump in work. There, she was queen of the high school, and she attempts to re-ingratiate herself into the social dynamics of the town as its deserving royalty. Mavis truly believes she is entitled to this adulation, while the audience is painfully aware she is doing this all to cover her bruised and damaged psyche, to push away the demons of alcoholism to which she’s so clearly losing, and to stave off the fear that she is as insignificant as everyone else.

Cody’s script pulls no punches. Mavis is constantly shifting from humiliation to hubris, using the latter to cover up for the former. She continually tries to reclaim her high-school sweetheart, Buddy, now happily married and far removed from the made-up social hierarchy of high school hallways. Meanwhile, class reject and victim of horrific bullying Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) is the only voice of reason in Mavis’ life. While most in the town can see through Mavis’ charade, Matt is the only one willing to neither coddle nor enable her, demonstrating how far above her narrow worldview he is.

Mavis’ character doesn’t follow an arc so much as a circle. By the end of the film, she learns lessons that would mature any rational person, but she suppresses the voice of reason with the affirmation of those still trying to earn her approval.

“Young Adult” is a scathing commentary on the effects of self-aggrandizement, too much affirmation, and the refusal to accept the complexities of life (beyond the confines of the “popular” and ‘unpopular” dynamic).

The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part I: #25-21

For the next few posts, I’m going to list my top 25 films of this new century, organized by my excessive nerdiness and a ridiculous metric I designed to rate each film mathematically.

Here are numbers 25 through 21:

#25: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


Bigger than both its predecessors in nearly every regard, this final installment in the Rings trilogy offers an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the saga. The battles are appropriately huge, but the film thrives on small, quiet moments, like Gandalf’s soliloquy on death and Frodo and Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom.

#24: Ratatouille


One of Pixar’s most surprisingly mature films, this one is blessed with one of the best scripts of the 21st century. Special highlights include Anton Ego’s monologue about the nature of criticism.

#23: Her


Spike Jonze’s only-slightly futuristic look at loneliness, technology, and human relationships in the 21st century pulls off the silly-sounding premise of a man falling in love with an operating system with its realistic tone. The screenplay and performances are all exceptional. One of the best recent films about modern Western humanity’s inability to connect despite increased “connectivity.”

#22: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


An absolutely mind-bending script from Charlie Kauffman and in-camera tricks from director Michel Gondry highlight this surreal trip.

Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to undergo an experimental treatment to erase all the memories of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). We watch as an unconscious Joel realizes from inside his mind that he doesn’t want to lose Clementine after all, and the pair run through Joel’s memories, desperately trying to hide from their impending erasure. It’s funny, surreal, and has a surprising amount to say about how we deal with pain and memory.

#21: Sicario


Fresh off the success of “Prisoners” and the artistry of “Enemy,” director Denis Villeneuve turned what could’ve been a by-the-book movie about Mexican cartels into a much deeper thing. The whole film is acted and timed impeccably, and there’s a sense of dread over all the proceedings. But the crowning achievement comes in what happens on the level of narrative: 3/4 of the way through the film, there’s a jarring shift in protagonists, and the fact that we as an audience are willing to follow the story in a completely new direction says a lot about Villeneuve’s mastery.

Ron Howard, Auteur?

There is an episode of Dawson’s Creek, that stalwart of ‘90s television, where Dawson submits a movie to a college film festival. At the registration table, he is asked to provide some information, including the following gem:

Nikki: Uh, favorite director?

Dawson: Spielberg.

Nikki: (looking up at him) You’re kidding?

Dawson: No.

(She looks almost embarrassed. She takes Dawson’s film reel over to another table as he follows.)

Nikki: Steven Spielberg. Undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker, but I mean, come on, where’s the edge?

Steven Spielberg, for all his contributions to cinema, is rarely placed in the upper echelon of auteurs like Welles, Ford, or Hitchcock. Adding insult to injury, his work is offered up to be sneered at by fictional college students on a mediocre TV show perhaps best remembered for a meme of its star blubbering. If Spielberg, twice a winner of the Academy Award for Best Director, can be dismissed so easily, how much more might cinephiles write off directors considered derivative of him?

Perhaps chief among these ranks Ron Howard, himself an Oscar winner and director of nearly thirty feature-length films. Howard’s films range from frothy comedies to bloated epics to extraterrestrial geriatric drama, but in his own way, he has defined himself as one of cinema’s premier chroniclers of human perseverance. A look at some of his most well-regarded films—Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Cinderella Man—demonstrates that Howard is drawn to projects that examine both the triumph of the human spirit and the sometimes-negative fallout of persevering through struggle.

Despite his success, Howard seems too often compared to Spielberg: for example, his early fantasy hits Splash and Cocoon came in the wake of Spielberg’s landmark E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Furthermore, they both seem to have shown interest in the years since to turning their cameras toward humanistic stories and away from more fantastical elements (though they’re each doggedly stubborn in maintaining the Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones franchises, respectively). To present Howard as merely a Spielberg knockoff or protégé, though, is unfair to his development: Howard’s style and narrative preferences grew quite independent of Spielberg’s arc, and the two now present an intriguing parallel in examining humanistic themes.

Spielberg’s more humanistic efforts, particularly in films like Schindler’s List, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies, revolve mainly around major and far-reaching acts of incredible courage: saving Jews from the jaws of the Holocaust, passing the 13th Amendment amid a war-torn nation, or negotiating a prisoner exchange in a hostile Cold War environment. Howard, on the other hand, seems more concerned with emphasizing everyday people who achieve small victories over incredible odds through acts of endurance. Cinderella Man’s Jim Braddock doesn’t end the Great Depression; his main objective is to put food on the table for his wife and children. In that struggle, though, he becomes an Everyman symbol of persistence in crippling poverty. A Beautiful Mind does not chronicle a man who found a cure for schizophrenia, but a single individual who learned to push beyond the disease to make personal breakthroughs. Even Apollo 13 essentially boils down to a story of a core NASA team trying to ensure three men get home safely. This is the difference between Howard’s heroes and Spielberg’s: the stakes are often considerably lower in Howard’s films, but no less noble in their depiction of heroism.

The trend continues even to the more fantastical efforts of each director. Roy Neary, protagonist of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, leaves behind his life on Earth following an obsessive and isolating search for alien activity, stemming from a harrowing “close encounter.” Spielberg implies that Neary may have been called, in a way, by the extraterrestrial beings, and Neary finds more fulfillment in his quest to discover the truth behind a government-sealed national monument than in his home life. When Neary finally steps into the alien ship, his wife and children are nowhere to be found. Spielberg may have a reputation for “cheese,” but particularly in his early films, he goes all-in on the wonder of the unknown at the expense of human relationships.

Compare this to the characters of Howard’s Cocoon. Though they also decide to leave Earth with their alien guests, the emotional stakes are wildly different. Having promised not to reveal their intentions beyond vague references to leaving forever, characters are presented with the moral dilemma of weighing the cost of their decisions as they break the news to loved ones. Howard’s film does not allow for easy goodbyes, even at the enticing possibility of immortality and discovery of new dimensions, because the emphasis lies on the characters as living in a complex world of relationships and commitments.

Recently, Howard’s films have explored more cynically the effects of determination. Talk-show host David Frost gets the scoop he wants from the former president in Frost/Nixon, but at what cost to a man who has already been humiliated? The protagonists of Rush take their racing rivalry to the point of obsession and eventually severe injury. The whalers of In the Heart of the Sea are pushed to the limit of psychological torture and physical exposure to the elements. Nevertheless, Howard’s primary motivation is to take each character’s drive to its logical conclusion and demonstrate the effects of single-minded devotion in the face of adversarial surroundings.

In this way, Howard has established himself as cinema’s premier auteur in the area of human determination and spirit. Far from being derivative of Spielberg—or that famous all-American chronicler of the Everyman, Frank Capra—Howard is unafraid to show both the positive and negative effects of such a will. It may be time to reevaluate Howard as a true and pure voice in cinema—especially as growing cries for the acceptance of Michael Bay as a singular auteur grow—and one whose thematic signature continues to leave its mark on the silver screen.

Negan, Trump, and “Going Too Far”

I’m no fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s just not my cup of tea. I can handle violence, but I just don’t have the stomach for the unique brand of gore presented by TWD, so I’ve never started watching the show.

What I have done, though, is follow very closely others’ reactions to major plot points as they reveal themselves. One of the overarching themes of this exercise is that I now constantly see people throwing up their (virtual, Facebook) hands and proclaiming they are done with the show because someone died and they can no longer go on supporting such nonsense. This is not limited to the average viewer, either. Especially since Noah’s death in season five—you know, the one where his face is graphically ripped off—articles have been cropping up wondering whether “TWD went too far this time.”

Such questions have now reached a fever pitch, as it was revealed in this week’s season-seven premiere that the beloved Glenn met his demise at the end of arch-villain Negan’s “vampire bat.” A popular blog titled “The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club” has now proclaimed (after several prior events that tested the authors’ commitment) that there is a 100% likelihood they will never watch again.

With such a fierce reaction to an admittedly unpopular decision, people like me are left to wonder what compels TWD viewers to keep watching. If one death can be so heartbreaking in a show whose bread and butter is sucking the hope out of everything, what could possibly entice someone to stay on board?

Continue reading Negan, Trump, and “Going Too Far”