A Decade of Cinema
I started the decade in a cinematic (and spiritual) crisis. My relationship of convenience was crashing to the ground like the Death Star on the ocean moon Kef Bir (it's a Rise of Skywalker reference) and the film I had been working on (my first feature) was spiraling out of control. Or was it me who was spiraling? My dependence on substances to fill the emotional void in my life left by failed relationships, missed opportunities, and overwhelming fear was at an all time high. I was either drunk or high the majority of the time - not entirely debilitatingly so but under some sort of influence nonetheless. I was a functional addict, but it was apparent (at least to me) that I hadn’t been the real me in many years. I was a puppet propped up by cycles of drug and alcohol abuse and self-indulgent behavior. Naturally, my creativity suffered - and the disaster of a film I was working on was proof of that.
At that time, I hadn’t seen a movie in the theater since the Lord of the Rings films. It’s unfortunate, but going to the cinema just isn’t a major pastime in Northwest Louisiana. I wanted to go see films, but only the blockbusters or A-List comedies came to our podunk town. Add to that, I was in the slump many 30 year olds find themselves in when they stop enjoying new media. If you're not there, you will be - and if you've been there, you know what I'm talking about. You just end up watching the same 20 movies over and over again, and you listen primarily to the soundtrack of your coming of age (which is often the music of your high school or college days). Don't fret tho... You either emerge from it with a new respect and understanding of new media - or you become an old person. There's no shame in either. Nevertheless, there is a huge gap in what films I saw in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Hitting rock bottom gives one clarity - and I was there, dashed on the rocks like a suicidal lover. I woke up one day with an epiphany. In reality, it was a fever dream or a vision. I saw what needed to be done clearly. I had to conquer my fears and anxieties. I had to leave Louisiana - and the destination was the Pacific Northwest. I did a little research and landed on a place called Portland, Oregon. I subsequently sold all my belongings, rented a car, and packed my dog up for a cross country soul-searching trip of a lifetime.
My first stop on the trip was at a friend’s apartment in Dallas, Texas. We had worked together in TV news and he had moved away a few years earlier. I think he was doing roadie work back then. He’s one of those rare people I share a real connection with - my only explanation is that we’ve always been friends and relations in other lives. But that’s neither here nor then.
That night, he ordered pizza and we sat up and watched a movie I had only vaguely heard of - Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I was blown away. It was very much what I was trying to do with my failed feature, except while Scott Pilgrim featured iconography and tropes of video games, my film was celebrating and satirizing the recent explosion of social media. That was the first film I saw of the 2010’s. Oh, how my life would change after that.
I moved to Portland and did my thing. Actually, I wasn’t sure what my thing was. Was I a filmmaker? I didn’t even have a camera. To edit, I used a crappy computer that wouldn’t even let me view the video without stuttering until it was exported. Because of this, I mostly worked on scripts. It was the one thing I had the power to do. And then, one day I met the most amazing man in the world.
We soon started dating - and our main pastime together became going to the cinema. Going to the movies is fun in Portland. For one, there are dozens of small cheap theaters, plus the big Regal and Cinemark multiplexes. There are art theaters and grind house theaters and theaters with food that rivals the best restaurants. And of course, there is beer and wine! Who doesn’t love a glass of wine while watching people shoot lasers at each other?
We try to see around two films a week in the theater. Things slowed down a bit when I started back to school - to film school - where I found myself watching multiple films in class and out of class every week. Because we see so many films, I have a lot of favorites. For this reason, I broke them into categories. The first category is “Small Movies.” They’re the sort of films that would never come to the multiplexes in my old hometown. But in Portland, these films are readily available in multiple theaters - and the best part is I can go see them for $5. We can munch on pizza or French fries, drink a beer, all while enjoying a nice simple cinematic story. It was during this time that I've come to realize that a good movie doesn't need to change the world. It doesn't have to rewrite the game. A good movie just needs to entertain for two hours.
Nevertheless, some of these little films have been profound. Some have had a huge impact on my filmmaking style. The House of Tomorrow, Beach Rats, and especially God’s Own Country. I saw the trailer for God’s Own Country online - then discovered it was playing at Living Room Theater. I knew it was a gay story set against the bleakness of Northern England, but that’s really all I knew. The film absolutely blew me away. I had never seen such frank, honest, and heart-aching sexuality on screen. Honestly, there were a few quiet but overtly sexual moments that I felt a bit embarrassed as I could hear the dozen other audience members breathing and stirring as the two naked boys on screen grunted and thrusted. The best part of God’s Own Country (spoiler alert) is that it ends happily. This was the first stirrings of a new wave of LGBTQ films that feature characters in charge of their own destinies - and that end happily. It was refreshing, having lived through the days when we were given either sexless “best friend” characters or tragic characters who died in the final reel. Personally, God’s Own Country resonated with me as a story about a farm boy (I grew up on a farm in rural Louisiana). It was refreshing to discover a gay story not set in the city, the clubs, or among consumer culture.
Over the years, we have seen more of these small movies. The Square is absurdly European. Begin Again is a sweet romantic drama. Youth is a powerful film about aging. Damsel deals with how audiences assume the hero deserves the damsel just because. The House of Tomorrow is a beautiful best friend story about modern boys, not the antiquated emotionless boys of the past. Beach Rats is a gritty Neo-realist story about a curious but heavily closeted boy who hooks up with old men. Juliet Naked is just a nice romantic comedy. And the Way Way Back is a nostalgic coming of age film with everyone’s favorite, Toni Collette (and written by Dean Pelton from Community).
God’s Own Country
The House of Tomorrow
The Way Way Back
Ingrid Goes West
We’ve also seen a lot of movies that I feel are triumphant tour de forces of technique and artistry. The Lighthouse is a psychosexual peephole into the nightmares of madmen. The Florida Project is an achingly poignant tragedy about poverty and the people on the fringes. Under the Skin is existentially creepy, beautiful, and mesmerizing. Manchester by the Sea is painful and cathartic. The Revenant is gorgeous and rapturous. Ex Machina is the film every film student is supposed to like, both perfect in form and function. And Call Me By Your Name is the film that made me feel love again, like the love I felt when I was 16 or 17 years old - that love we forget as we age and mature. I have watched that movie over and over since seeing it in the theater (3 times), and every time, I continue to feel the emotions just as strongly as the first time. Perhaps I intellectualize more now than I did when I initially saw it, but I still feel the emotions of longing and uncertainty. Does he like me? Should I be aloof? Should I speak or die? Wow, I teared up writing that. There have been a slew of artistic films in the last decade, but I nevertheless think the last few years of cinema belong to Yorgos Lanthimos. The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Favourite quickly became my favorite films. I love the absurdity of them, the allegorical nature, the symbolism as story beats, the characters as pawns. The Favourite in particular is beautiful, riveting, and exciting. Those wide angle shots, those monochromatic costumes, and who doesn’t love Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz at their most fierce, funny, and heartbreaking?
The Florida Project
Call Me By Your Name
Killing of a Sacred Deer
Under the Skin
Manchester by the Sea
But there’s something to be said about movies that need no intellectualization. Not saying you can’t - I’m just saying these films continue to entertain me even when I shut off my critical brain and simply enjoy them on an emotional and visceral level. I love the music or the jokes or the rapid-fire editing. I enjoy the dancing or the wit or the awe-inspiring moments. Isle of Dogs is pure whimsy (and I’m not a huge Wes Anderson fan). I’ve never seen a movie about dogs get dogs SO RIGHT (everyone knows I love dogs).
I love Los Angeles and I really love Los Angeles of the past, so I rightfully love the nostalgic 1970’s noir comedy The Nice Guys. It was actually the first movie where I really liked Ryan Gosling (to his credit, I hadn’t seen many of his films).
I loved Blackkkclansman. I’ve only recently become a big fan of Spike Lee… growing up in Louisiana, the ever-present all-encompassing racism of the area no doubt got in the way of my knowing his films and appreciating them earlier. But the fact of the matter is, he’s a genius. If gay film could have had a Spike Lee like black film did, the cinematic landscape would be far different today… Good thing we have that filmmaker now (it’s me, you dummies!).
Gosh, what else? Booksmart is truly a groundbreaking film - a buddy high school comedy ABOUT GIRLS. While each generation has their defining teen comedy - Superbad in the 2000’s, Clueless in the 1990’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High in the 1980’s - Booksmart is most definitely the defining film for GenY - a beautiful group of kids who are done with homophobia, misogyny, and the like. But why do I watch that movie over and over again? Because of GIGI - Played with aplomb by my idol Carrie Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd. With her googly eyes and raspy voice, she brightens up every scene she appears in - and she appears in a lot. Gigi is what I call an “OH LORD Character.” They’re characters that keep popping up, scene after scene, building on the hilarity - and every time they show up, you think to yourself, “oh lord!” Oh, Billie Lourd.
As I said earlier, I love Los Angeles, but especially anything to do with Hollywood. I really love old Hollywood. Hail Caesar! Represents everything I love about Hollywood and the Cohen Brothers. It’s cooky, witty, intelligent, and beautiful. It’s a mystery, it’s maniacal, it’s funny and tense. I have watched that film over and over - sometimes, I just enjoy the camp. Other times, I try to figure out what exactly it's trying to say.
Although drastically different, another film I watch as much as Hail Caesar! Is Ladybird. It’s the movie where I discovered Lucas Hedges - who is both beautiful and brilliant. The moment he collapses into Ladybird’s arms and cries about coming out, I fell in love with him.
And then, there is Hereditary. It shocked me how much I liked this film, because I honestly don’t like horror. In the last ten years, I’ve seen only a handful of Horror Films - Hereditary, Midsommar, and The VVitch. I barely considered The VVitch to be a horror film. Midsommar deals more in existential dread (I loved it but had a panic attack after watching it). But Hereditary! Wow! I became a little obsessed for a while - perusing Youtube for more insights. It doesn’t hurt that it stars two of my favorites - Toni Collette and Alex Wolff (he was also in The House of Tomorrow).
Not a horror film - but a vampire film - What We Do in the Shadows also caught me off-guard. I wasn’t sure what to make of it by the trailer, but it was playing at one of the $5 theaters, so I figured I would check it out. I had never heard of the director (that’s laughable now as he has become a superstar), but I was familiar with Flight of the Concords. Needless to say, I spent two hours cackling in the theater. As soon as it was available on Bluray, I snatched it up, so I could continue laughing for years.
I’ll close this list with the Academy Award winner for Best Picture - just kidding - it’s LaLa Land. I love a good musical. And I love beautiful people. I also love Emma Stone. I have watched this movie more times than a teenager in the 1990’s watched Grease. Oh, and Ryan Gosling!
Movies I could watch over and over
What We Do in the Shadows
The Nice Guys
Isle of Dogs
Let’s talk about a few honorable mentions… There are too many to talk about them individually. I’m the rare film person who REALLY LOVES movies. I know a bad one when I see one and I’m not super interested in some of the popular genres (action and horror to be specific) - big budgets and explosions don’t impress me - but I don’t mind them either. I just love good movies - with good stories and good characters and valuable lessons. I love Hollywood nostalgia like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I love mindbenders like Black Swan. I love musicals like A Star is Born. I love 16mm like Jackie and Carol. I love space and comedy and that moment Kim Jong Un gets his face burned off in The Interview. I love foreign films like Ida. I love obscure films like Vox Lux (I have a lot of Natalie Portman on this list). I love surprises like Gone Girl. I love ALL THINGS Star Wars. I love gritty. I love heartbreaking. I love colorful. I love cartoons. I truly love it all. Oh yeah, Does everyone know who Caleb Landry Jones is? He’s a remarkable young actor and I just love his freckled face. He’s in Three Billboards (and also in The Florida Project).
Maybe I should have just listed my favorite actors of the last decade. Toni Collette would be at the top of my list. She is a chameleon (also, I love her voice). Emma Stone has really taken off this decade, starting with Easy A. Remember Easy A??? Natalie Portman in Jackie and Black Swan and Vox Lux. At the beginning of the decade, I was unimpressed with Andrew Garfield and Robert Pattinson (I put them together because I used to get them confused with each other), but they’ve become two of my favorite dramatic actors in films like Under the Silver Lake and Silence (Garfield) and Damsel, the Lighthouse, and GoodTime (Pattinson). Timothée Chalamet is the sweetest Twink ever. Lucas Hedges. Alex Wolff. ScarJo became an actual superstar in the last decade. Tilda Swinton became a damn icon and international treasure. Now that I think about it - It’s been a great decade for films and actors. We went through a weird period in the early 2000’s - when reality tv celebrities and party kids were outshining real actors. I think that period is over. I think the latest crop of young up and coming actors proves that. Unlike previous generations, they really have ambitions and goals. They’re not so cynical or nihilistic. They want to act and experiment and prove themselves as actors - not just celebrities. (Let's just hope people don't take Youtube celebrities and e-boys too seriously).
I started this decade in a cinematic black hole. While all I had ever talked about since I was a toddler was making movies, I was at a place where I wasn’t sure that was my destiny. I was actually on the verge of accepting some sort of normal domestic life. I was so desperate for some sort of stability or direction or reassurance from someone else that I could have easily fallen into the trap of regular life — no offense to regular life. 90 percent of the people have to be a part of it — but I always knew it wasn’t for me. If I had chosen that life, I would have been betraying everything about myself. Thank the gods for visions and fever dreams! Thank the gods for Portland, Oregon. Thank the gods for the most supportive partner in the world, for friends, my dog, the Portland State University School of Film, and most importantly, thank the gods for cinema. It was my first and only passion - and it continues to be my passion.
A Star is Born
All things Star Wars
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Under the Silver Lake
The Shape of Water
Silver Linings Playbook
This is the End
The Big Short
Swiss Army Man
The Disaster Artist
The First Monday is May