Thursday, December 31, 2009

Decade in Review - Onyx's Top 10

A couple months ago Backer had the idea of posting our top 10 movies of the decade. He followed through and posted his list, as has Cake Man, and Zombie has his full list coming. Inspired by their efforts to sift through ten years of cinema for ten movies, I went ahead and put together my top 10 for the decade. This list does not represent the top 10 greatest films of the decade. These movies (in no particular order) are my personal favorites over that time span, and I've learned from it. I've learned that I am clearly a dude...and I understand more clearly why my girlfriend and I can never agree on anything to watch.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

There's a lot to love about this Cohen brothers film, but it makes my list because of Javier Bardem's portrayal of Anton Chigurh, one of the most intimidating and relentless villains I have ever seen. His determination and sheer lethality took me back to The Terminator where we saw a seemingly unstoppable force barreling towards our protagonist. The fact that the terminator couldn't be killed by any bullet only added to its fear factor. Chigurh is a flesh and blood human and can be done in by any well placed bullet, but you almost begin to doubt that in the way he takes life. Even when Chigurh is wounded it's only a brief delay in his pursuit of Llewelyn Moss. As we saw in The Terminator, the antagonist takes a scene to mend his wounds himself. It's the only time Chigurh and the terminator aren't in direct pursuit of the protagonist and it doesn't last that long. What more could you want from a bad guy?

Gladiator (2000)

It always surprises me that I can't remember if I saw one of my favorite movies in theatres. I'm sure Cake Man remembers the exact date, time, and place he first saw the forest battle in Germania or Maximus' first battle at the coliseum. Everyone has a few movies that you can just sit down and watch again regardless of how many times you've seen it. Of the movies made in the 80s, I came back to Predator more times than any other. Of the films made in the 90s, The Princess Bride took the replay value crown. For this past decade, Gladiator was that movie. Each time I watch it I still hope Maximus can return to his estate in time to prevent the slaughter of his family. That's when I know I really love a movie, when I keep hoping despite having seen the outcome dozens of times.

Taegukgi (2004)

My college roommate recommended this Korean movie to me back in school when he realized I was somewhat of a military junkie. I should have been studying at the time, but instead I was glued to my computer screen as the dvd played, fighting off tears at times.

Taegukgi follows two brothers who are forced into the Korean War. Jin-tae is the street-smart older brother who always looks after his book-smart kid brother, Jin-seok. When Jin-tae learns that recipients of a prestigious medal of valor are granted special requests, he volunteers himself for any mission no matter how dangerous in the hopes of winning the medal and sending his brother home. But as the brothers fight for their lives and the fate of their country, Jin-seok seeks to step from within his brother's shadow and stand on his own as a soldier and a man.

Taegukgi has intense military action sequences that can stand with anything Hollywood can put out, but the movie also has character and lots of heart. If you enjoyed Saving Private Ryan and can stomach subtitles Tai Guk Gi is well worth a watch.

Collateral (2004)

It didn't take much more than mention of Michael Mann and a hitman to get me to watch Collateral in theatres. I'll admit, Tom Cruise had something to do with it too. I feel as though I'm one of the few people who openly like the guy. He had me at Top Gun, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed seeing him transformed into Vincent, the ruthless silver-haired hitman. Jaime Foxx was excellent in his role as a cab driver who gets the unfortunate task of driving Vincent around the streets of Los Angeles for one night while he eliminates his targets. It never hurts to have Michael Mann direct in my opinion. I can't quite pinpoint all that I like about his directing, but I find myself drawn to his movies and I certainly appreciate that when guns go off in his films you instinctively feel like ducking.

Go (2001)

When I first saw Go in my Japanese Cinema class it was my first exposure to the racial tensions that exist in Japan between Koreans and Japanese. I wasn't surprised that such tensions existed, but this was my first exposure to them, and although a movie isn't the real thing, it can be a very intimate portal into those experiences we otherwise wouldn't know. The human emotion that propels us through these experiences are the same on both sides of the world, but it's always refreshing to see it through another perspective.

Go is a teen drama that follows Sugihara, a Korean national who lives in Japan with his parents. He attends a communist Korean school, but he speaks Japanese and hangs out with Japanese kids. When he falls in love with a Japanese girl, Sakurai, he hides his heritage from her in fear of rejection. There's a great deal of anger within Sugihara as he is a young man who doesn't quite know how to blend into Japanese culture while being at peace with his heritage.

Go is an exciting, stylish film, but it has great emotion at its core in a story propelled by youthful love. It manages to go beyond teenage angst. It's not just about the pressure of Sugihara's love for Sakurai. The film touches on real societal pressures and familial pressures that add to Sugihara's strife. I don't really remember caring about a character recently in the way I cared about Sugihara.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

There were a lot of movies I was thinking about including over Black Hawk Down, but I'd just be lying to myself if I didn't put it on my list. I'm a sucker for great military drama and action, right next to the guy kissing the girl at the end of the movie. I'll admit there are other places to look for better military drama, but Black Hawk Down is a spectacle for military action. This movie was almost exhausting in its relentless action as it portrayed what was described as the most intense gun battle involving US military forces since the Vietnam War. I remember it fondly as one of the loudest and most entertaining movie going experiences I've had, and Mark Bowden's book was just as good. I wish there was something I could say on a character or story level but there really isn't. As much as I love great characters and great stories, sometimes I just want to see something blow up.

Kill Bills (2003 and 2004)

Never has a quest for vengeance been so much fun. If we're not being wowed by stylish slice and dice fight choreography amid an ultar cool soundtrack, we're sitting through drawn out scenes of dialogue that we absolutely don't mind sitting through. I consider Tarantino to be a master of dialogue, and he so often manages to create a full cast of great characters. In some movies you might lose track of the supporting cast, but how often have we seen small 1-3 three scene roles in Tarantino movies go down in the better part of cinema history? Congratulations to Tarantino for creating Beatrix Kiddo, the best movie heroine of the past decade in my opinion.

JCVD (2008)

Our love of movies has to start somewhere, and I'm not ashamed to say that Jean Claude Van Damme was one of my favorites as a kid. When I got older and began exposing myself to films that contained more than spin kicks and shootouts, it was easy to see the shortcomings in a lot of Van Damme's work, but you have to keep in mind that movies like Bloodsport and Double Impact aren't being put out as oscar bait. Van Damme is an aging action star, and I'll always respect his legacy in entertainment.

When JCVD was released it was interesting to be able to hear people collectively talk about a Van Damme film in a positive way. JCVD is an intimate film, semi-autobiographical and semi-fictitious as Van Damme plays himself and touches on his difficulties as an aging action star, marital woes, and the pressures of public criticism. The story follows Van Damme retreating back to his home country of Belgium in an attempt to escape the madness, but the national icon can't seem to catch a break as he becomes one of several hostages in a botched post office robbery. The film is a gift for any Van Damme fan, but as critics' praise revealed, JCVD is a solid film that any movie goer should be able to find merit in.

The Last Samurai (2003)

Every once in a while a movie comes along that you feel was made just for you. Cake Man has The Dark Knight, and I have The Last Samurai. I'm not sure if I'm ready to call it my favorite movie over the past decade, but it stands out as my most rewarding movie going experience over that time. Some might say that I should have seen more movies, but let me try to explain the way the stars aligned for me on this one.

I tend to enjoy Tom Cruise and his off screen antics don't really have an impact on whether or not I see his movies. In addition, I have long had a fascination with samurai and that fascination continues to this day with my study of Kendo (the way of the sword). In the film Hiroyuki Senada played the role of Ujio, one of the most fierce and enjoyable characters in the movie. I've long had an appreciation for him considering that he voiced the protagonist in Dagger of Kamui, a 1985 anime that certainly played a major role in my love of movies. Let us not forget that the music in the film was composed by Hans Zimmer, my personal favorite. Oh yeah, it also has ninjas.

There was no way I wasn't going to see The Last Samurai and there was no way I wasn't going to like it. The film was well acted all around, especially by Ken Watanabe. Its epic action is right up there with Gladiator and Braveheart, the ninja ambush being one of my all time favorites. It was beautifully shot and the score perfectly complemented the drama and the emotion. I bought it on dvd the first day it was out.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Master and Commander was released a few months after the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. I was a freshman at NYU at the time and I remember that I was doing my best to capitalize on my interest in piracy by developing a true to life screenplay on pirates. As much as I enjoyed Captain Jack Sparrow and company, I always felt that the romanticized take on piracy overshadowed a very dramatic and movie worthy reality that took place on the high seas. Master and Commander wasn't directly about the golden age of piracy, but in it I found a serious representation of men of action on the high seas. I always see in it the potential for what a serious pirate movie might be.

What I love about Master and Commander is that it's a chess game in the form of a pursuit across entire oceans. One day the HMS Surprise and Acheron are exchanging broadsides at twenty yards, then the next the two vessels are separated by hundreds of miles of ocean. Another day one vessel is in hot pursuit, a few miles off the bow of the other. By morning the vessels have swapped places, and a few days later they're separated by hundreds of miles of ocean again. With no vessel captured by the next it's all due to the cunning of two captains, Jack Aubrey being portrayed by Russel Crowe. With Master and Commander it's like keeping a car chase exciting across an entire country rather than a city block. With Peter Weir at the helm I believe they did a masterful job.

There's the list. No turning back now, but here are a few other titles that could have just as easily been included. Lost in Translation, Pan's Labyrinth, Spirited Away, Amelie, Inglourious Basterds, Princess Mononoke, and History of Violence.

Shame on District 9, Body of Lies, Miracle at St. Ana, and The Hurt Locker for not being what I had hoped for.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Novel Ideas: Lessons learned so far

A quick apology for my lengthy absence. In all honesty, I've spent a while mulling what my place is here at The League -- not in reality, as I find our meetings informative and helpful -- but on the blog. Time, as with anything, is an issue. But what can I bring to the blog that readers can't get elsewhere? Links and comments are always nice, but I do my link aggregating elsewhere and in the end, you're just passing along info from somewhere else. But I digress.

One of the things I enjoyed writing most for the blog were my occasional "What I'm Reading/Viewing"-style posts, so I imagine I'll get back to those at some point in the new year. Additionally, one thing that sets me apart (because, let's face it, it's all about me, right?) from my fellow Leaguers is that I have no screenwriting aspirations. I mean, I'd write one if the stars aligned properly, but my interest lies mainly in prose. That's neither better or worse, just my preference.

I think it'd be helpful to chronicle, in a fashion similar in concept if not frequency to Cake Man's Writing Week columns, my experiences writing SILENT CITY. For those of you who don't recall, SILENT CITY is my long-gestating crime novel, set in modern day Miami. I've been working on it for over a year. After a few stops and starts and one massive outline rewrite, I finally feel like some forward progress is being made. I'm about 60 pages in and generally happy with where it's going.

So, in no particular order, here are a few things I've learned so far. I'll pop back in with more notes on the process as I continue to learn/unlearn/deal with them.

1. Always outline
One of the toughest lessons I learned was one of the first. My first pass at SILENT CITY was written in the first person, very much in the style of one of my favorite detective novels, George Pelecanos' A FIRING OFFENSE (author above). That wasn't really the main problem, though. I was working without an outline -- I mean, I had a general sense of where I wanted to go with the book and who the villains were. But, for all intents and purposes I was flying blind. Not a great idea when writing in a genre that is all about calculated surprises and tight plotting. By the time I realized (with some help from The League, of course) that I was wandering around the forest without a compass, I was about 40 pages in. Not a lot, if you're thinking in terms of novels, but it was a lot of writing for me. The longest work of fiction I'd ever produced was a 25-page short story, so the idea of having to rewrite my precious 40 pages was anathema to me. Cue long writing lull.

My mind kept coming back to SILENT CITY, though. So, after kicking myself a bit for delaying the inevitable, I sat down and hashed out a new outline, trying to save as much of my first draft as I could. While a noble endeavor, that in and of itself leads us to my second lesson.


2. Nothing is sacred
In my efforts to retroactively organize SILENT CITY, I crafted a competent, but fairly uninteresting -- and cluttered -- outline. Characters became redundant, scenes dragged on too long and the climax was, to be kind, nonexistent. Changes needed to be made if the project was to be salvaged. And saving the project would most probably involve starting over, from a blank page one. This thought was utterly frightening, especially considering I'd spent months "working" on the novel to varying degrees. Still, it was that or add SILENT CITY to the pile of unfinished projects I'd built up over the last few years. This was more unappealing than the former. It even drove me to write about it on the blog.

So, with a heavy heart, I saved my initial draft as "SILENTCITYold" and "SILENTCITYoutlineold" and started two new documents. One, a new outline with an ever-changing list of changes and tweaks at the top. The changes that had been enacted were bolded, other needed changes and suggestions (based on my own editing/notes and comments from my fellow Leaguers) were continually added to the top of the list. The second document, as expected, was an entirely new draft. One of the things I felt didn't really work with the original incarnation of the novel was that it was first person. Despite my love of the Pelecanos Nick Stefanos books, I wasn't George Pelecanos, and I felt more comfortable writing in third person. So, I pasted in what I found useful from the first draft and the new outline (which, in turn, took whatever was deemed worth saving from the original outline) into the blank document as I went along, purposely avoiding plopping too much into the blank document for fear it would overwhelm me and minimize my flexibility in terms of plotting and characterization, while still giving me some structure to comfortably work off.

This plan worked out pretty well. I was writing at a comfortable clip and the new changes were working. My new outline was received positively by the League and some others who got to read it. What could go wrong?


3. Find balance
In a few weeks, I'd gone from decrying the need for an outline (foolish) to becoming an apostle of my shiny, new outline (also foolish). After a good meeting where my outline was, for lack of a better word, approved by The League, I set off and started writing. 30 pages later, I had a few chapters that I was generally happy with. The only problem? They fell kind of flat. Motivations were murky, pacing was slightly off and -- lo, and behold -- some structural changes might be needed. But why? My outline was approved! Too bad, I learned. While a few weeks ago my outline read fine and made sense, it was just that -- an outline. The execution of said outline will either support the initial success of the outline or showcase a few problems. Why is your main character doing what he's doing? Who is the villain? What's with all the musical references? At the end of the day, you can have the best outline in the world, with every scene properly paced and each character fleshed out -- but it's still just an outline. An outline that, if your book is published, no one will ever read. With that realization, I learned that you have to try your best to adhere to the plans you've laid out, but also be flexible enough to allow these characters you've created -- and created to simulate real people as much as you can -- to live and breathe, and move around and do stuff. It happened with my protagonist a few days ago. Instead of wandering into the next scene I'd plotted for him, he decided to jump ahead to another point. Bad? No. I actually think it reads better. More work? In the short-term, yes. But it's worth it if it works. This also leads me to the final bit of advice for today.

4. It's a draft. You will rewrite.
It's natural, especially I think for a first-time novelist like me, to try and nail it on the first pass. You want to set the scene perfectly, nail the dialogue so everyone sounds unique and interesting, etc. Not gonna happen. If you want to get to the end -- and by end, I mean, the end of your first pass -- you'll need to let some things go. But this realization can only come after another, more important one: This is not the last time you will write this scene, or bit of dialogue, or description. I'm not familiar with any novels that were just written in one pass and sent for publication. I'm sure I'm wrong, but it's safe to say this is not the norm. With that in mind, you have to gauge things: How much time should you spend tinkering with something vs. whether or not you should press onward, knowing that tweaks (dialogue changes, expanding descriptions) that don't totally alter the structure and flow of the novel can be revisited at a later date. "Why put off now what you can do later?" you ask? Well, that's fair. But at what cost? The goal is to finish a draft. Once that's done, you begin the process of editing and rewriting, which is an aspect of writing unto itself. One I hope we can discuss here. Once I get there, of course.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Decade in Movies [Zombie's Top Ten, Part I]

When 'Backer posed the challenge to the League of listing and explaining our top movies of the decade, I immediately spent the next several weeks listing every movie I'd absolutely loved in the last ten years. I was left with a list of a few dozen movies that I found very memorable - and absolutely no way to narrowing that list down. What criteria am I supposed to apply? Do I go for the movies I had the most fun watching, or the ones I felt had the best screenplays? Which ones I've re-watched the most times? None of these choices seemed to fit, so I decided to try something a bit different.

This last decade was a very transformative one for me - as both a person and as a writer. I started the aughts in high school - over the next ten years, I'd go through four years of screenwriting training at NYU, meet lots of inspirational, like-minded writers, graduate and eventually start pre-production on my own film. I'm in a far, far different place going into 2010 than I was in 2000.What does that mean in terms of films, though?

For this prompt, I'll explore the ten movies over the last decade that I feel impacted me the most on a writer. When I look back on my (hopefully long, hopefully successful) screenwriting career many years from now, I feel like my writing will still show some trace of these movies that just hit me at the right place at the right time.

So, without further ado...

2001 - Mulholland Drive

Sometime just before seeing Mulholland Drive was when I decided I was going to pursue a career as a screenwriter. I'd always toyed with the idea growing up, writing plays and short movies for my friends and family, but the summer of 2001 was when the idea cemented in my brain. I am going to be a writer even if it takes me my whole damn life.

I had first seen Blue Velvet sometime a few months earlier and it quickly became one of my favorite movie (and still is, to this day). The concept of auteur filmmaking was still pretty foreign to me. (I understood that Dario Argento and Quentin Tarantino had styles they carried from film to film, but that was as deep as my knowledge went.) David Lynch was one of the first directors whose body of work I specifically hunted down and barreled through. Mulholland Drive was the first Lynch movie that was new at the time I saw it.

Mulholland Drive begins as one thing, but by the time the movie hits its three-quarter mark you're not sure what it is at all anymore. The surreal fever dream that breaks out for the last half hour of the movie was one of the most unsettling, horrific, haunting pieces of film that I'd been exposed to. (Seriously - the film goes batshit crazy.) I remember coming to the end of the movie, calling a friend while the credits were still rolling and urging him to drive over, and then watching it all again that same night.

We debated the meaning of Mulholland Drive's ending until the wee hours of the morning, coming up with several different theories but none that seemed to fit exactly. This process repeated again and again - I'd watch and rewatch the movie with different friends, family members and other acquaintances, hoping that someone would catch something that I'd missed each time and crack the Mulholland Drive code. What the hell did it mean?

After I learned that the movie started as an aborted ABC TV series and that the last half hour probably didn't have any meaning at all - I at first felt let down, but after a while I embraced it more than ever. Some films tell a story. Some tell a story with a message. And some - like this one - don't really have a story or a message; but, they create a unique experience. Despite my search for the answers to Mulholland Drive proved to be frustrating and futile, watching the movie was an experience I enjoyed, the first time I watched it through the tenth time. And that has to be a sign of asuccess, right?

2000 - Battle Royale

I came across Battle Royale in a very roundabout way - which makes sense, as growing up a teenager in rural Ohio you just don't discover foreign film on your own. (I didn't see a video store that stocked any until I moved to NYC and was spoiled by the recently-deceased Kim's Video.)

I caught the Flaming Lips touring with Beck when their tour stopped in Cleveland in '02. During the Lips' vibrant and glitter-fueled stage show a large screen hung where scenes of exploding Japanese schoolgirls were projected behind the band. Naturally, this violent, bloody imagery stuck in my brain - when I got home from the concert I immediately jumped on the internet to find out just what the hell Wayne Coyne & Co. had exposed me to. It didn't take long for someone to point me to Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale.

I bought a horribly-subtitled bootleg DVD from eBay and eagerly dug in. Wow - these crazy kids were just massacre-ing the bajeezus out of each other! I have never seen anything this insane! I wish I knew could tell what the heck was going on! It was love at first sight.

With a new awareness that filmmaking happened outside of the U.S., U.K. and Canada, I then wondered - was all foreign film like this? Are they all this messed up?

2001 - Amelie

Aaaand Amelie proved to be the polar opposite of Battle Royale. As soon as my eyes were opened to foreign film, I eagerly grabbed my Columbia House catalog, flipped to the back and immediately ordered all five non-English movies they had in-stock. Two weeks later my package arrived and I tore in.

Whoooooa, whoa, whoa. This movie didn't have any axe-wielding Asian school girls, but it certainly had a lot of other things to offer. I was instantly enamored with the director, Jeunet, and his adorable, waifish leading lady, Audrey Tautou. To this day, no movie has outright charmed my pants off like this one. It's as twee as can be, but you can't help but just love it to death.

I can probably blame Amelie's influence for turning the female leads of my screenplays into Manic Pixie Dream Girls - a tendency I've been working to break myself of. The next time I write a female character whose sole personality trait is "cute" - I'll look in your direction, Miss Tautou.

In any case, this movie pushed me head-over-heels for foreign cinema. Practically to a fault, actually - for a period I'd convinced myself that Hollywood was morally bankrupt and completely bereft of ideas. I might have been right - but by limiting myself to subtitled flicks for this period caused me to miss out on a lot of really great domestic cinema.

2001 - Spirited Away

Let's go back a little bit. My initial fear of subtitles for some reason didn't apply to anime. I was an an anime nerd from my early teenage years, when my older cousin introduced me to Akira, Project A-Ko and the like. I did not fear subtitles on my animated films; on the contrary, I preferred them. (Yeah, I was THAT guy on the internet forums.)

Spirited Away (and a few choice selections from the rest of Miyazaki's filmography) is the perfect example of what a filmmaker with unlimited imagination can do when they are presented with unlimited means. An entire world is created here, much more 'real' than anything the James Camerons and Peter Jacksons of the world can make with truckloads of studio money. That's the animation advantage - if you can dream something up, it can be realized visually. It's a shame that so few animation studios outside of Ghibli and Pixar seem to be aware of animation's full potential.

The child enters a surreal dreamworld in this film that is mysterious, beautiful and terrifying all at the same time - and absolutely believable. To me, this movie does everything that Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are tried to do earlier this year - only so much better.

2001 - Wet Hot American Summer

Wet Hot American Summer seemed like a rare creature in the early 2000s - a lowbrow comedy that wasn't an American Pie, Scary Movie or Austin Powers sequel - could it be?! And it DOESN'T star Rob Schneider or David Spade? God, what a black hole the late '90s, early '00s were for humor...

Wet Hot American Summer is silly. That's really the best way to describe it. If you can buy that everything that happens in this movie takes place over the course of one day, you're gold. If you've already accepted that the 30-something actors are playing teenagers, this shouldn't be a problem. By the time you get past all of the above, you won't question talking soup cans, telekinetic teens or children averting armageddon from the comfort of their summer camp. This movie is all over the place, but in a good way. Sure, there's crude humor in there, but the film isn't driven purely by dick jokes like way too many comedies are these days.

This movie showed that a script can be silly for silliness' sake and still become a viable movie in the new millenium. Most importantly, Wet Hot American Summer reminded me you don't have to f*ck a pie to get a laugh.

[Check back later for the second half of Zombie's Top Ten of the Decade]

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 104 - Back in the Act Two Habit

Even though I know that vacations can be the best time to write (since I have nothing else to do after I wake up at noon), it can be really hard to motivate myself to be productive then. Fortunately, I managed to motivate myself this break, and the results so far have been... interesting.

We've written a lot on and off on this site about music and the influence that writing to music can have. Sometimes, all I need is background noise, and I'm good to go. Other times, music either interferes completely, or the wrong mood will completely throw off my writing sessions. These past few days have been an odd mix of all of the above.

Typically, I'm a fairly fast writer once I have an outline written. In reworking Act Two of my post-Apocalyptic spec, I feel like I've been all over the place. Some days, I'm doing great. Others, it's like I can't choose the right tunes, and the hour that I write for drags by with barely a word typed. To be honest, these past few writing sessions I've had have also been some of the more disappointing I've had recently. Sure, I'm making some progress and the page count is slowly but steadily growing. At the same time, though, I come away knowing that scenes are really little more than a framework for what they need to be. In the past ten pages I've written, there are at least three big beats I know I have to go back and fix, since the characters' emotions are totally inconsistent and do not make sense from one scene to the next.

I wouldn't say that I'm afraid of ot even really all that uncomfortable with this approach, though it's certainly not the one I would prefer. Rather, it's just unfamiliar territory. I don't like knowing that there's a lot of work I have to do when going back to the pages I've already done. On the other hand, maybe it's a sign that I'm recognizing needs and elements that are not yet flowing naturally from the pages, and I will have to identify the things that need to be changed in order for the script to unfold more organically. Today and yesterday in particular have left a very strange taste in my mouth, and I'm just not quite sure how I feel about them, at all. I guess I'm going into new territory for myself as a writer, and I'll have to wait before i can definitively say whether that's a bad thing or not.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 103 - Laying My Writing Plans

Wow, I can't believe there's only one week left in the year (more or less). More than any other that I can remember, this year has sped by. I'm an April baby, and it seems that the eight months since I turned 24 have virtually come and gone in the blink of an eye. Still, I've gotten a lot of writing (and even more re-writing) done in that short time, and I hope for a lot more to come.

With the year winding down - though, I plan on doing a TON of work over the Holidays - it's getting to be time to plan my projects for the next few months. I don't necessarily stick concretely to any writing plans I come up with, but I feel that having a game plan is always helpful, especially in the face of an almost two-week vacation while my office is closed between Christmas Eve and New Years. The break will largely be focused on continuing to re-write my post-Apocalyptic spec, which I hope to have finished by 2010. After that, though, I want to keep writing without stopping.

Usually after I finish a project, I wind up taking about a month break before delving into another. That's all well and good when I'm just writing for myself, but the hope is to sell the post-Apocalyptic project early into 2010. I'm certainly not banking on that, since nothing in this business is a guarantee, but I do want to plan accordingly. One of the worst things a new writer can do when making headway into the industry with a project is to have no follow-up projects whatsoever. I have a few completed drafts and a number of ideas, but nothing yet that could instantly go right out. 

If I'm truly serious about making a career of my writing, I know that I have to get those other projects lined up. So, as soon as I'm done with this new draft, I want to jump into a new project with little or no break at all. I have an outline I'm ready to work on. There's another script that can use some rewrites. There are other brand new ideas that haven't been fleshed out all all. Whichever one (or ones) I choose, I'll want to get cracking, so now is the perfect time to start planning. Who says you have to wait until January 1st to implement your resolutions?

Friday, December 18, 2009

2009 Spec Sale Analysis

Nikki Finke just posted a fascinating look at the 2009 spec sale stats. I remember seeing similar analysis of the market last year, and it's always interesting (and reassuring) to track the stats. Last year, for point of reference, our buddy Scott over at Go Into The Story counted 88 spec sales.

Some highlights of Finke's post:

• 436 spec scripts came out in 2009, of which 72 sold (17%).

• 373 specs went out wide in 2009, of which 19 sold (5%). Of those 19, only 3 sold after April 30th, out of 178 attempts during the period (1.7%).

• As for spec sals by genre, comedies led with 32% of sales, thrillers 29%, action adventures 21%, while dramas and sci-fi/fantasies tied with 10%.

• Universal and Warner Bros bought the most specs among the major buyers (6 each). But Warner Bros bought only 1 spec script in the second half of the year. Paramount & Sony tied with 5 each not counting ony's Screen Gems which bought another 3. DreamWorks had 4. 20th Century Fox had 3, but adding all its three banners, Fox bought 6 specs. Lionsgate purchased 3. New Line didn’t buy any specs in 2009.

• Relativity and Intrepid bought the most specs among the other buyers (3 each).

• Among agencies, CAA made 14 spec script sales out of 34 attempts, or 41%) same number of spec sales as last year, followed by UTA's 10 sales out of 30 attempts, or 33%, and ICM's 10 sales out of 33 attempts, or 30%. WME didn’t form until May 2009, but when you take the numbers for all three of its component companies -- Endeavor, William Morris, and WME -- the combined agency would have been a dominant #1 in total scripts sold, with 18 sales out of 47 attempts, or 38%)

• Benderspink among management companies had the most spec sales (5 sales out of 11 attempts, or 45%). Kaplan/Perrone had 4 sales out of 12 attempts, or 33%. Principato-Young made 3 sales out of 8 attempts, or 38%, while Circle Of Confusion did 3 sales out of 15 attempts, or 20%.

It's especially interesting to note that, of the 19 sales from specs that went wide, only 3 sold after April. Three sales for 2/3 of the whole year of that group. 

As writers, I think there are two ways to react to these kind of stats. You can either take it as a sign of how difficult things are and give up (which we at the League don't advise). Or, you can read all this, digest it, and realize just how difficult it is to make a sale and why your manager or agent might not yet have come through for you as you'd have liked when you first signed up with them. 

I'll do my major Writing Year recap in a few weeks, but I can tell you this: my post-Apocalyptic spec is one of those 364 specs that came out in 2009 and didn't sell (or at least I assume it is, since it did get read a few places). While I'd have loved to be one of the lucky 17%, my manager and producer kept telling me how difficult the market is/was, and they're totally right. It's incredibly difficult to make that sale. However, with the internet, we now have incredible access to stats and information that can help reassure us and fortify our knowledge of the situation. Your script might not have been the best thing execs read this year, but that might not be the reason they didn't buy it. People are scared to buy anything that's less than "a sure thing" and a spec script by an unknown writer - unless safely within the box or so brilliant it can break all the rules - just ain't a sure thing. Rest assured that you're not the only one who feels like you're pushing the boulder up a hill - we're all doing it. Let's just hope 2010 is the year when we get it to the top. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Crazy Heart, Dull Story

There’s a strong possibility that Crazy Heart will finally give the accomplished yet underrated Jeff Bridges his first Oscar. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, the fallen country star Bad Blake is tolerable because Bridges can find the humor in a lonely, pathetic situation. What’s more, he effectively balances a deteriorating physical condition with an unwavering talent. But too often the film falls back on shots of Blake’s fat gut or scenes of him weeping over broken whiskey bottles. Some will call them dull; others will call them Oscar moments.

It’s a conventional story: a broken-down drunk rides his broken-down truck through a series of small-venue bars scrounging what little cash (and ass) past fame can afford him. He meets a woman named Jean who’s way too hot for him and he’s off on the road to redemption. That Maggie Gyllenhaal - as the single-mother Jean - is about 30 years younger than Bridges is beside the point. It worked last year in The Wrestler. Marissa Tomei connected with Mickey Rourke as failed parents and through shared experiences as showpieces. It also didn’t hurt that Rourke had a six-pack.

In Crazy Heart, Jean seems to fall in love with Blake due to that undying female instinct to save a man who needs saved. That, or she possesses a crystal ball that shows Blake eventually bonding with her toddler son. Gyllenhaal gives a solid performance, but the script doesn't give her much beyond a role as Blake’s love interest. Nor does it spend enough time on the relationship between Blake and Tommy (Colin Farrell), a headliner who offers his mentor a life raft by commissioning him to write a few songs. We learn that the two had a falling out, but the rift and its speedy resolution lessens the complication.

First-time writer/director Scott Cooper reduces Jean and Tommy to stepping stones for Blake’s road to sobriety. The road offers no alternative destination and plods through several obligatory scenes, and it’s to the actors’ credit that the film remains engaging. Additionally, the original music by T-Bone Burnet and Stephen Bruton is pitch-perfect, never sounding too on the nose, compensating for lags within the story.

I am a big Jeff Bridges fan. The Dude is obviously a cultural staple, but my favorite was his high school football star in The Last Picture Show, an understated portrayal of a guy who loses his sense of masculinity. Such performances are why Bridges has remained underrated despite accruing 4 Oscar nods. He delivers again here, but it’s disappointing to see him possibly nabbing the gold for a weaker film that seems like Oscar bait.

Oh, well. As Martin Scorsese knows, sometimes Oscars are career achievement awards.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 102 - What are you Trying to Accomplish with your Re-Write?

Last week at this time, I was working on my revised first act, and it was a struggle. What I was grappling with, but perhaps hadn't really realized at the time, was that I was being asked to fix something that wasn't broken. At least not in the traditional sense.

One of the two major notes that I got from the Production Company I'm working with was that they wanted me to push the Armageddon events in my post-Apocalyptic spec up in the world's time-line. Whereas the draft they first read has an unwritten yet implied time frame and the story starts about five years after the earth was rocked by devastating events, the new draft takes place only a year or six months out. While this might not at first seem like a major change (though, there were some natural and sociological effects on the planet that I was worried would be lost), it was in fact quite a major rewrite.

I'll be honest in saying that I didn't at first see how much would be different, probably because the re-writes would all be in the details. I was free from having to make any substantial structural changes; in fact, my producer agreed that the structure would basically go untouched. What would change, though, would be almost every line of dialogue and detail within the scenes. The ways in which people would respond and think about their situation would be completely different. It was hard for me to accept that the re-writing (for once) meant not altering structure, but rather the look and feel of each scene. Like a house whose interior is being completely redesigned, but all the walls and fixtures left exactly in place, I had to go through and re-imagine everything.

When my producer called me on Wednesday after reading the first round of "fixes" on Act One, she wasn't thrilled with the work. The changes, she rightly said, felt more like they were tacked on to an existing script, rather than integrated naturally into a new one. Her comments sunk in the next day, and I was able to give her a new 11 pages that felt much more organic, and she took to them. We agreed to go forward in that fashion, and my plan is to send her the rest of the act tonight. Sometimes, I guess, it helps the writing when you're knocked down a peg and have to figure out what you're really trying to accomplish with your revisions.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Black List '09 Released: Hollywood's Favorite Unproduced Screenplays

Here you have it, folks! Hollywood development and creative executives' choices for their favorite unproduced screenplays of 2009. It's an honor for any writer to have a project on the Black List, as it gains them both industry recognition and is validation of their abilities.

Entertainment Weekly just released the following top 10, which you can find here. Nicole Sperling of writes, "This year’s list consists of 97 scripts with 311 people contributing to the ranking — up from 260 in 2008. The top 10 (actually, 11, thanks to a tie in 10th place) is filled with mostly up-and-comers, with the exception of Aaron Sorkin and David Scarpa. All of the scripts are in some stage of development around Hollywood, with two of them currently in production. Take a look and beginning stages of what will be coming to a theater near you, some day." This year's choices are:

1. The Muppet Man
By Christopher Weekes
What it’s about: The life and times of the late Jim Henson (pictured), the man behind Sesame Street and The Muppets.
What it’s like: The Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, but with puppets. This moving story depicts the life of a creative genius, with occasional surreal appearances by the likes of Kermit and Miss Piggy.
Status: Set up at The Jim Henson Co.

2. The Social Network
By Aaron Sorkin
What it’s about: Chronicles Mark Zuckerberg’s complicated journey towards creating Facebook. Sorkin depicts both the founder’s motivations for starting the largest social network in the world and the human casualties that came with his profound success.
What it’s like: The fascinating biographical elements of Shattered Glass meets the courtroom drama of Kramer vs. Kramer, without the tears. Sorkin cuts between Zuckerberg’s heated depositions with his former Harvard colleagues who claimed he stole Facebook from them and the chronological retelling of the company’s trip to becoming a billion-dollar enterprise.
Status: In production for Sony Pictures. Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg while Justin Timberlake portrays Sean Parker, one of the founders of Napster and Zuckerberg’s idol. David Fincher is directing.

3. The Voices
By Michael R. Perry
What it’s about: Jerry, a schizophrenic worker at a bathtub factory, accidentally kills an attractive woman from accounting. While trying to cover his bloody tracks, Jerry starts taking advice from his talking (and foul-mouthed) cat and dog.
What it’s like: Watching the lovable pig from Babe join forces with American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Some may be turned off by the script’s twisted sense of humor — Jerry has friendly conversations with his victim’s severed head — while others will get a kick out of its sheer audacity.
Status: Vertigo Entertainment is trying to package the film with a lead actor. Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) is developing.

4. Prisoners
By Aaron Guzikowski
What it’s about: When his young daughter and her best friend vanish on Thanksgiving Day, a Christian survivalist named Keller Dover takes matters into his own hands, imprisoning and torturing a suspect whom the police have set free. But does Dover have the wrong man? And if he does, who really has his little girl?
What’s it like: Silence of the Lambs meets Mystic River. A terrifying, riveting read. Vivid, unforgettable characters, a bullet-fast plot, and scenes that mine our deepest psychological fears. Lock the doors and windows (and go to the bathroom) before turning the first page.
Status: Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) directing for Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros.

5. Cedar Rapids
By Phil Johnston
What it’s about: Tim Lippy is a small-town insurance man who’s somehow made it to middle age without having quite done anything. Everything changes when he unexpectedly gets the chance to represent his company at the Cedar Rapids insurance convention, where comedy ensues, of course.
What it’s like: The 40-Year-Old Virgin meets Napoleon Dynamite. A sad, but not pathetic, middle-aged man comes of age in the Midwest. A speedily told story with romance and action and some legitimately funny jokes.
Status: In production, with Miguel Arteta directing and Ed Helms playing Lippy. John C. Reilly, Alia Shakwat, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver co-star.

6. Londongrad
By David Scarpa (The Day The Earth Stood Still and co-wrote The Last Castle)
What it’s about: An adaptation of Alan Cowell’s 2008 book The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder, chronicling the life and strange death of Alexander Litvinenko. Remember in 2006, when that ex-Soviet spy was allegedly poisoned with radioactive tea at a London sushi joint? That’s him.
What it’s like: The script evokes Born of the Fourth of July, Silkwood, and Robert DeNiro’s history-of-the-CIA saga The Good Shepherd — but in Russia, with spies. Using Litvinenko’s final days as a framing device, Scarpa’s script flashes back to pivotal passages of Alexander’s adult life: training and serving as a KGB agent; trying to staunch the growing influence of Russian mobs as a Russian super-cop after the fall of Communism; and boldly deciding to publicly accuse his superiors of trying to assassinate a Russian business tycoon, as well as facilitating the rise of Russian president Vladimir Putin through acts of terrorism.
Status: Warner Bros. has optioned the script.

7. L.A.Rex
By Will Beall (based on his novel of the same name)
What it’s about: Rookie LAPD officer Ben Halloran gets partnered with scarred and tobacco-spitting Officer Marquez, and the unlikely team hit the streets of L.A. on the brink of a gang-rivalry explosion. Amid run-ins with the Mexican mafia, brutal gang murders, and corrupt cops, we soon find that Halloran may not be as squeaky clean as his brand new badge.
What it’s like: Training Day combined with the brutal violence of The Departed. L.A. Rex is as much a cop story as it is a graphic portrait of underground crime in Los Angeles.
Status: Paramount Pictures has optioned on behalf of producer Scott Rudin.

8. Desperados
By Ellen Rapoport
What it’s about: Wesley Robbins, a 30-something single attorney with an unhealthy obsession with coupling up, thinks she’s found the perfect man. But when he doesn’t call for days after the first time they sleep together she freaks out and sends him a scathing email, only to learn he’s been laid up in a Mexican hospital with some broken bones. On a whim, she and her girlfriends travel down south to erase the email before she ruins what she believes could be her one true love.
What it’s like: The Hangover meets The Sweetest Thing, but in a good way. This equal parts raunchy and sweet script has LOL moments and the potential to be a big hit, especially with audiences loving movies today with complicated female protagonists.
Status: Isla Fisher is attached to star with Mark Gordon and Jason Blum producing at Universal

9. The Gunslinger
By John Hlavin
What it’s about: When a Texas Ranger is horrifically tortured and killed, his sharp-shooter older brother, Sam Lee Hensley, plots revenge against the mysterious, sadistic leader of a notorious drug cartel. Sam Lee’s quest for vengeance will cost him seven years in prison, his right hand and one eye. It will imperil his young nephew and wreak havoc on the lives of those who love him. And it will not bring him peace.
What it’s like: No Country For Old Men fused with Death Wish, graced by the melancholy of Unforgiven. Violent, macho, and action-packed, it’s as fun as a Dirty Harry script, but the remorse and grief of the central character linger long after the final gunshot.
Status: Warner Bros. and Andrew Lazar producing

10. (tie) By Way of Helena
By Matt Cook
What it’s about: Set in the south at the turn of the century, Texas Ranger David Kingston and his Mexican bride are sent down to the mysterious town of Helena to investigate the multiple Mexican bodies washing up in the river. What they discover is an idyllic-like town where everything is not as it seems.
What it’s like: Pleasantville meets High Noon where dueling-pistol showdowns take on a whole new meaning and the definitions of righteousness and morality are twisted into unrecognizable concepts.
Status: Purchased by Russian filmmaker-producer Sergei Bodrov (Kavkazskiy plennik)
10. (tie) The Days Before
By Chad St. John
What’s it about: A man from the future keeps hopping one successive day into the past desperate to stop a vicious race of time-traveling aliens from wiping out humanity.
What’s it’s like: This lightning-paced, time-travel adventure is Back to the Future meets Independence Day meets Demolition Man accompanied with a gargantuan production budget.
Status: Warner Bros. has optioned it and a few big-time action directors have circled it but no one is yet attached.
(Reported by Sean Smith, Adam Vary, Jeff Jensen, Josh Rottenberg, Paige Parker and Chau Tu)

UPDATE: Nikki Finke has the full list here (this includes all selections, in addition to those that ranked 1 through 10.

From the official Black List blog, here's how a script goes about getting on the Black List:
On November 6 executives at Hollywood film studios and production companies are asked to submit the names of no more than ten screenplays with the following characteristics:

1. They love the script
2. The script was written, or somehow came to the collective conscience of the Hollywood community, in that calendar year.
3. The film version of the screenplay will not be in theaters before December 31, 2009

Immediately after voting closes on November 20 those submissions are tabulated. The scripts are ranked by the total number of votes. In 2008, a script needed at least four mentions to be included on the list.
So there you have it. Congratulations to all 2009 Black Listers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cake Man's List for the Top 10 Movies of the Decade - part 2

As promised, here are my choices for Top Ten of the Decade numbers 5 through 1.

5. THE WRESTLER (2008). The Wrestler caught me completely by surprise. I had an opportunity to attend an advance screening, which was followed by a Q&A with director Darren Aronofsky. As a major fan of Requiem for a Dream  (coughNumberThreecough), I went mostly for the chance to hear him talk. What I got from the viewing by itself was more value from the experience than I had hoped to get from the night.

It’s not often that I feel as though a drama has just hit me in the gut. Most dramas that don’t easily fall prey to obvious melodrama (and those are few and far between) tend to get weighed down by their characters’ obstacles, emotions, or the director and/or screenwriter’s goals. As a viewer, it’s easy to guess what’s coming around the corner or to feel let down by events that you know will happen. The Wrestler surprised me on multiple occasions. When Mickey Rourke’s The Ram – his professional wrestler alias – suffers a heart attack and is told he has to get out of the ring, that’s immediately what he does. I’ve been so accustomed to characters always acting in their own worst interest in dramas that I was taken aback by his health-conscious decision. But that did more than surprise me; it got me on board with the protagonist. Here’s a guy who is just trying to keep himself going (physically, emotionally, mentally) that we want to see him succeed. When he fails and is upset, we’re upset. When he’s happy, we’re right there with him. The Wrestler culminates in one of the most poignant, touching, and memorable scenes I’ve seen in years, and probably longer than that if you only consider movies I’ve seen in theatres. It was a punch to the gut that floored me – in a good way – and instantly cemented itself on this list the moment the credits rolled.

4. MAN ON FIRE (2004). Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington and directed by Tony Scott, is not only a revenge thriller, to me, it is one of the definitive revenge thrillers. Set in Mexico City, a city rampant with kidnappings, the film stars Washington as ex-mercenary John Creasy, an alcoholic former warrior who is deeply haunted by the ghosts of his past. When a business man (Marc Anthony) hires Creasy in what promises to be an easy job protecting his daughter, Pita, Creasy finds himself growing unexpectedly attached to the girl in his care. Therefore, when Pita is kidnapped and apparently killed in a kidnapping gone awry (one that leads Creasy to multiple injuries), war is on.

Man on Fire had to be on this list, because it’s something that I can watch almost any time of day. If I’m sitting at home channel surfing, and this happens to come across the screen, I’ll stop and watch – at least for twenty minutes. This movie is more than just a good revenge flick, though. (That said, anyone looking to make a Punisher or Taken or The Brave One should watch Man on Fire. A lot.) The acting is incredibly solid. The relationship between Creasy and Pita feels natural with very little of the almost requisite cheese. Of course, the action and “I’m gonna kill them all” attitude is explosive (sometimes literally). On top if it all, the soundtrack, which includes the ever beautiful vocal work by Lisa Gerrard, is stirring. At almost two and a half hours, Man on Fire isn’t short, yet the running time never once deters me from throwing this into the DVD player. At the end of the day, I think that it’s the mix of incredibly strong action with at times quite moving emotion that earns Man on Fire a high spot on my list.

3. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). Talk about a difficult watch. Darren Aronofsky’s second film on this list (hmmm… a pattern, perhaps?) is perhaps the most visually stunning films about drug addiction that’s ever been made. It’s also one of the least compromising. So filled with imagery and stories about the horrors that drug addiction can lead to is Requiem for a Dream that I honestly believe it should be shown in high school health classes. If ever there was a movie that turned me off to drugs, this was it.

Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto play Marion and Harry, a young couple deeply in love and enjoying their life together. Their friend Tyrone (an amazing job by Marlon Wayans – one of the only things I’ve liked a Wayans brother in) and Harry’s mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn), round out their happy little family. Over the course of the 102 minute runtime, all four key characters go from happy go luck to deeply troubled (and in trouble), all because of drugs. Harry and Tyrone’s pot use leads to dealing and to heroine addiction. Marion’s demons drive her to whoring herself out for toxins, and Sara’s addiction to medication (which have been overprescribed to her) land her mentally crippled in a hospital. What’s most amazing to me is how much I feel for all of these characters every time I watch the film and how beautiful the finished product is. Requiem is unquestionable evidence that Aronofsky knows how to set up a shot and tell a compelling story. This choice, along with The Wrestler (not surprisingly) is one of the most dramatic films on my top 10 list, and it never fails to move me. While not one that I can watch over and over due to the incredibly heavy content, Requiem for a Dream in infinitely rewarding each time I do decide to embark upon it again.

2. TSOTSI (2005) South African. Full disclosure: I love South Africa. I’ve been there twice now, and I hope to have a home there some day. That said, I can’t remember how I first heard about the 2005 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. I think I might have watched it on an airplane to South Africa. Whatever the case might be, I was instantly taken with Tsotsi. “Tsotsi” means “thug” and is the protagonist’s street name in the stirring film about a street tough who carjacks a car, shooting the female passenger in the process, only to discover the woman’s baby in the back seat shortly thereafter. Set in the shantytowns of Johannesburg and directed by Gavin Hood (who would go on to be involved in the problematic Wolverine Origins), Tsotsi is ultimately about redemption.

As a human being, Tsotsi is trouble. Not only does he unflinchingly paralyze a woman while stealing her car, but he beats one of his own friends to a bloody pulp. However, we also get the sense that he’s someone who wants to change; only he doesn’t know how. The baby that winds up in his care becomes that opportunity for him, one that he truly begins to reform for. Like many of the films on this list, Tsotsi has a great soundtrack. South African native singer Zola adds a number of tracks, while Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker contribute the more melodic tracks featuring Vusi Mahlasela. The final scene in the film is also undeniably the most powerful, and the stirring vocal work elevates the last beat to great filmmaking. If you haven’t seen Tsotsi, please do yourself a favor and do so. Though the realistic portrait of life in Johannesburg can be difficult to take at times, the film transcends the culture gap and earns itself a top spot on any list of notable movies. It is touching, moving, and very pretty – both on the eyes and the ears.

1. GLADIATOR (2000). “And the Oscar goes to…” Gladiator blew my mind when I saw it in theaters as a high-schooler. The action not only looked amazing on the big screen, it deserved the big screen. For 2 and a half hours, I sat, jaw open, eyes wide as Maximus fought his way through gladiator after gladiator to the evil emperor. I was riveted, and it is because I’m still riveted every time I watch Gladiator to this day that it’s my favorite movie of the past decade.

As a pretentious film student going to college in New York City, I felt I had to hide my love for this movie. Sure, it won the Academy Award and was frequently referenced in film texts and magazines, but it was a big-budget action movie. It didn’t have subtitles or black and white art shots or unknown actors or achingly dark portrayals of a modern family at the brink of destruction. Therefore, it was wrong to love. One day, though, I realized that none of that mattered. Every time I channel surfed and found Gladiator, my plans were set. If I was staying in on a Friday or Saturday night with nothing to do, I would pop Gladiator in and be good to go. More than that, I studied Gladiator for its structure and dialogue, since it presented itself as the perfect learning tool for a number of scripts I was working on. When I’m not watching it, I still allow it to influence me audibly – I listen to the soundtrack (more Lisa Gerrard) while writing pretty regularly. Ridley Scott knows how to make a movie, that’s not up for debate. When he got a hold of David Franzoni’s script, he turned out one of the best epics in recent decades and reinvigorated Hollywood’s interest in a period long-forgotten by filmmakers. Gladiator is worth studying, worth watching, and worth loving. I’m so glad that Maximus killed that pretentious film student that was afraid to love this movie and freed the writer who was willing to embrace it. Yes, Sir Ridley Scott, to answer Maximus’ question, I am entertained.

So there you have it, my top 10... er 11.  Just a few fun connections to point out:

                1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain
                2. Lisa Gerrard on Soundtrack – Gladiator and Man on Fire
                3. Directed by a Scott Brother – Gladiator and Man on Fire
                4. Directed by Darren Aronofsky – The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream
                5. Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler and Man on Fire

And finally, here are a few films not in the top 10 (or even top 20 necessarily) that I just wanted to point out for various reasons or elements: HALF NELSON for a great scene; MEMENTO for a really original way to tell a story; WALL-E and TRIPLETS OF BELLVILLE for great (and very dialogue free) animated films; MONGOL for a wonderful and gorgeous epic; HEAD-ON a German Turkish film that's a great look into another culture; UNBREAKABLE for an amazing twist (what can I say, I'm a comic book fan); and LOVE LIZA for great writing and superb performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates. 

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Cake Man's List for the Top 10 Movies of the Decade

Inspired by Backer, I've decided to include my picks for the Top Ten Films of the Decade. This isn't my list for what I think are the ten most technically successful films, but rather my favorite ones, the ones I've watched the most or enjoyed my most. It's an odd list; some of the choices even surprised me. Anyway, without further delay, here are choices 10 through 6 (5 though 1 coming on Thursday).

10.  THEY CAME BACK (2004) French, a.k.a. Les Revenants. Even I was a bit surprised when this made it onto my list, but I knew it belonged because I just couldn’t feel comfortable with it being relegated to the runner up section. A little seen film (to my knowledge), it tells the story of a small French town that suddenly has to deal with the unexplained return of all its recent dead. A zombie movie in the least conventional sense, the dead in They Came Back are thinking beings that retain a number of the memories of their past life. They recognize their loved ones and do their best to return to daily life, even going so far as to taking up their old jobs. Nearly a fifth the town’s population is made up of the returned deceased, and while all seems right on the surface, just the slightest bit of observation shows that it’s not.  The dead aren’t nearly as smart or capable of independent living as they were when they were alive, but their defects don’t stop the flood of painful emotions that their loved ones experience upon suddenly having their wives, husbands, parents, and children back from the grave. Before the shock of having deceased family members back has subsided, it becomes obvious that the dead have their own agenda, though what it is is unclear.

Every time I rewatch They Came Back, I’m reminded of how slow portions of it are. Its 103 minute runtime definitely drags in places. However, I can’t stop it from popping into my mind every now and then. Though I think the film could have done more to explore the “what if” scenario of having your loved ones return (semi-amicably) from the dead, I think that They Came Back does a great job at least probing the question, and it gets me thinking enough to earn a spot at number ten.

9. Stranger Than Fiction & Wristcutters: A Love Story (both 2006). Ok, I cheated a bit, but I had too hard a time choosing between these two to bump either rout of the running. Stranger Than Fiction is probably the smartest film I’ve seen Will Ferrell star in. It was also one of the most refreshingly clever films I saw while in school. Will Ferrell plays an IRS agent who suddenly begins hearing a voice (Emma Thompson), which narrates his life and informs him that he’s unaware that he’s going to die soon. It turns out that the voice he hears belongs to a novelist who has invented a character that is Ferrell – from his name and job down to his every move.  With the notice of his impending death looming over his head, Ferrell casts off his rigid, IRS agent lifestyle, and makes time for life, excitement, and love.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on Stranger Than Fiction’s appeal to me, but the voiceover and Ferrell’s response to it, the unfolding love story between an IRS agent and a hippie baker delinquent on her taxes (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the literary references and intelligence from writer Zach Helm all come together beautifully. Will this go down as a classic? No, probably not. It’s more likely to be forgotten. But the strong performances, excellent comedic timing (Dustin Hoffman is hilarious as a literary professor who Ferrell turns to for help and guidance – his advice is to go ahead and die, since Ferrell is living the author’s masterpiece), and the smart, smart writing earn Stranger Than Fiction a (shared) ninth spot.

Wristcutters: A Love Story is another off-beat comedy with somewhat dark subject matter. Patrick Fugit plays Zia, a young man whose disappointments and boredom in life have driven him to suicide. After killing himself (during the opening credits), Zia winds up in a purgatory of sorts populated only by suicide victims in an afterlife that is “like life, only worse.” The suicides wind up in a New Mexico-esque desert that’s unending in every direction. Soon, Zia – who is stuck working a crappy job at Kamikaze Pizza – befriends Eugene, an Eastern European failed rocker who lives with his entire immediate family. When Zia finds out that his girlfriend (a large factor in his suicide) has also offed herself, he and Eugene hit the road to find her.

Wristcutter’s charm is in its off-beat humor and the close, real connections that develop between its characters. At its core, this is a road buddy movie mixed with a romantic comedy. Of course, there’s another girl and that leads to the inevitable realization that what we once had might not be what’s best for us now. While nothing groundbreaking there, perhaps, Wristcutter’s real strength is the new approach it takes in creating worlds and embedding an element of the paranormal and the offbeat. Eugene’s car has a giant void under the passenger’s seat, which transports anything dropped on the floor to a different dimension (a gag that remarkably doesn’t get old). Most characters Zia meets along the way are accompanied by a flashback showing how they got to the suicide world. This is a smart, fun, and certainly rewatchable film. And, perhaps surprisingly, it generates enough discussion and deeper thinking about the “what ifs” associated with it to keep it alive after the final credits role.

8. Sunshine (2007). The sun is dying. This is true. Of course, none of us will be alive to experience the effects that will have on the Earth. In Sunshine, though, the sun’s life is rapidly fading, and with it, goes any hope of survival. Cillian Murphy plays Capa, part of a team of scientists charged with taking a year and a half long flight across the solar system on a mission to reignite the sun. They’re actually the second team to embark on this perilous quest, as the first one mysteriously went off the grid a couple years ago. Stranded in space, millions and millions of miles from earth, they have nowhere to turn if things begin to go wrong.  And, because they’re millions and millions of miles from earth on a mission that determines the fate of all life on the planet, things inevitably begin to go wrong.

I’m not an overwhelmingly huge sci-fi fan, but Sunshine is hands down one of my favorite recent films. The allure of the planets, stars, sun, and solar system that my pre-K teachers instilled in me still hasn’t worn off, so Sunshine instantly gets bonus points for placing me in the middle of it all. (There is actually only one, very short scene that takes place on earth. The rest of the movie is either set on the ship, just outside the ship, or in very close proximity to the ship.  It’s dark. It’s space. It’s a giant void. And it works perfectly.) The movie also begins to shift from pure sci-fi (think 2001 but more active) to a bit more comic-booky at the end. Granted, those two are not often unrelated, but that’s the feeling I get when watching Sunshine. It’s also a great example of post-apocalyptic or other heightened disaster scenario films (one I’ve actually used with my producer and manager). The audience is never told why the sun is about to burn out in 2050; we’re simply told that it is going to happen and we’re on board from there. Sunshine is fun, smart, and engaging. Director Danny Boyle recently made a major splash with Slumdog Millionaire (and he was unquestionably a big presence before that, too), but I wonder if even he has forgotten about this one. Having earned just barely $32 million worldwide (not even 3.7 domestic), Sunshine was by no means a hit. Except, of course, with me that is.

7. The Dark Knight (2008)
. Since everyone in the world saw this movie three times (in theaters), I think I can bypass the quick synopsis. For me, The Dark Knight has an instant, undeniable bias that propels it toward the top of my favorites list – full disclosure: I am a HUGE Batman fan. By that, I mean that I have over 150 Batman trades (most of which I got for free… I promise). I love Batman like Onyx loves Predator, UFOs, and ninjas combined. So, when Chris Nolan – whose Batman Begins was hard not to include on this list – made one of the darkest, most chaotic Batman anythings last year, I was hooked. The heart of The Dark Knight, of course, is Heath Ledger’s creepy and devilishly, successfully heinous Joker. Every minute mannerism, tick, and blink conveyed an infinitely deep, disturbed persona belonging to someone who had no end to the joy that he derived from generating chaos and fear. The Joker was brilliant as an antagonist, driving the protagonist so close to the breaking point that not only the audience, but the protagonist himself begins to doubt that victory is possible. Heath Ledger’s performance and the Nolan brother’s script instantly places the Joker among the ranks of the best on-screen villains ever, and the sense of overwhelming chaos and futility that the film exudes is almost palpable.

As much as I love The Dark Knight, I should admit that my first reaction to it was split. On the one hand, I had found a new favorite villain and dreamed of the day that a character I write can stand up next to the Joker and attain the same levels of cinematic infamy. On the other hand, there were certain elements that just didn’t work for me. Gordon’s “death” for example never seemed to fit in as anything other than a red herring for the audience. I didn’t and still don’t feel that was earned in the movie. It didn’t seem natural or to work, technically. The more I think about The Dark Knight, though, and the more times I rewatch it, the less those unsuccessful elements matter. In the end, when the fat is boiled away, what’s left is a thrilling, fast, gripping action film that’s smart and has one of the best villains of the past decade, and many might say, of movie history.

6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
. When Ang Lee’s multi-Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain first came out, it earned a lot of buzz as one of the first (and certainly more successful) mainstream Hollywood films about an openly gay couple. Lee didn’t shy from his subject matter, and he didn’t expect the audience to, either. With beautiful, heart-breaking performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, the film embraced its subject matter with fully formed, believable characters. Add to it Gustavo Santaolalla’s score, the supporting performances, desolate setting, and deliberate pacing, the nuances and often subtle gestures throughout the film make for an amazing final product.

Of course, the first reaction to Brokeback was often that it’s the “gay cowboy movie.” I remember being annoyed by the audience I saw it with, an audience that seemed to have no appreciation for the depths of the film, but was rather there to giggle uncomfortably at the sight of two grown men kissing passionately. It doesn’t take much, though, to recognize what Brokeback Mountain really is. Sure, the love story is between two men. But, at its core, that’s what it is. A love story. Universal in the emotions and complications that come with loving another human being, Jack and Ennis experience a love so rife with obstacles that it becomes impossible. The times they live in, the people in their world, their jobs and lifestyles, and even their own stubbornness all conspire to keep these two soul mates apart.  Ledger’s performance as the softspoken Ennis Del Mar is one of the most moving I’ve seen on the screen. He yearns for nothing more than to take a chance on the life that Gyllenhaal’s Jack proposes they share, but he cannot allow himself to do so. At the end, when he holds the late Jack’s bloodied shirt to himself and utters those three simple words, “Jack, I swear,” we know that he’s aware his only chance for happiness is gone forever. One of the most devastating and honest love stories, Brokeback Mountain is sure to live past this decade and survive the test of time.