Posts Tagged 'Film'

Top 10 Films of 2010

Happy Oscar Sunday everyone!!! Just in time to close out 2010 with my Top 10 Films of the year. That this was not the greatest year for movies is certainly not to say that there weren’t some absolutely wonderful films. By and large, the bigger movies underwhelmed while the moderately-budgeted auteur projects really delivered the goods. Here’s to hoping the studios take note and provide funding accordingly. Before I get to my list, a few housekeeping notes:

Movies I Didn’t See: Rabbit Hole; Another Year; Barney’s Version; The Illusionist; Mother; Somewhere

Movies That Are WAY Overrated:  The Kids Are All Right; The Town; The Ghost Writer; A Prophet

Honorable Mentions: 127 hours, Blue Valentine; Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; The Last Exorcism; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1; The King’s Speech; Winter’s Bone

-TOP 10-

10. Black Swan

We start off in murky waters. The screenplay for the film is a mess. There’s the whole idea, for starters, that the descent into madness is an almost solely sexual one for women. I found it a little condescending and it seemed like the psycho-sexual elements – in particular Nina’s lesbian dream (which was okay yes all right very super totally sexy-and-a-half) – didn’t really amount to much in terms of propelling her further along the downward spiral. And yet. Natalie Portman’s performance is fearless. The ballet is majestic and rigorous and painful. And director Darren Aronofsky, in the same bloody water from “The Wrestler,” creates a complete picture of this dual world. In reality he shows us the cracks and groans and aches of the performers’ bodies, the routine of breaking in their shoes, and the design of the heightened sound of Portman’s breathing really highlights the physical toll. Then there are all of the subtle effects on Nina’s body: her rash, the hair, her eyes, the rippling scales, the creepy visions and eventually, with Clint Mansell’s brilliant score, her transformation. Some people interpret the film to suggest certain characters didn’t exist or that Nina, herself, may have been a figment of someone else. I’ve only seen the film once, but I didn’t take that away. To me, it shows a single-minded pursuit of perfection at any cost. Beyond that, I think the speculation devolves into sortof conspiracy theories.

9. Iron Man 2/ Tron: Legacy

Most of the major action efforts by studios this year were bland and uninspired, and I know plenty who felt that way about both of these movies. I thought the action was top notch, from the hand-to-hand battles in “Iron Man 2” to the etherial light-cycle sequence in “Tron: Legacy.” And both had plots that engaged me. Most sequels settle for wall-to-wall action, but both of these took their time and provided opportunities for talented actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges to do some fascinating, if curious character work. And call me a sucker, but the father/son storyline worked really well in “Tron.”

Neither movie bends our expectations so far that we’re in an arthouse movie (although there was some opportunity for it in both, actually), but neither did they insult our intelligence. They could have painted-by-numbers, instead they took some chances, showed some ambition. That goes a long way with me.

8. Shutter Island/Inception

This is the second and final tie on the list. What an interesting double-feature Leonardo DiCaprio offered this year. He plays essentially the same character in both films, struggling internally to make amends with a disturbing personal tragedy that refuses to change no matter what orchestrations he creates. In both he creates a world steeped in his regret and pain, and in both there are disastrous consequences. DiCaprio is perhaps the best actor of generation at conveying anguish. You see it registered over every inch of his face, in his posture, in the way he half-chews when nothing is in his mouth. It would be too big and dramatic if it weren’t also so true; and when he finds stillness, it can be powerful and unsettling.

For my money, “Shutter Island” is the better film, for its additional thematic concerns about men-of-violence and for the way its climax doesn’t sidestep the character’s past, but allows him to relive it and see it as it truly was for the first time. “Inception” still has those themes, but I’m more impressed with it as a piece of action-filmmaking. The hotel sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is probably the most purely exciting thing I’ve seen all year. The numerous layers of reality are interesting, but ultimately, there is a wide gaping hole at the end of the film that goes unexplained. A double bill with a movie each from Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, both of which leave viewers asking all sorts of questions afterwards, has to be recognized.

7. Dogtooth

A small Greek film from director Giorgos Lanthimos, the plot is spare and upsetting. A husband and wife have confined their three teenage children to their home for their entire lives. A fourth sibling has been created and the children are told he lives over the fence, due to disobedience. The father works at a nearby factory, where he occasionally brings home a woman to have sex with his son. The parents teach their children incorrect meanings for words. Why? Are they afraid they will escape? Are they deliberately cruel? The children are aware of television as an invention, but the only thing they see are their own home movies. When their mother uses the telephone, they wonder why she is talking to herself. The film raises all sorts of questions about parenting and those qualities which are inherent within us versus those that are learned. How does the notion to deceive occur? What about to dominate? What about to lie? What about basic spatial relationships that seem obvious? Do they seem obvious because they’ve been reinforced or because they are naturally evident? In addition to the slow burn of tension and hostility, what makes “Dogtooth” remarkable is that it never explains itself. It simply shows characters behaving. Apart from that, we’re forced to draw our own conclusions.

6. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Now a film that seems to telegraph its perspective for us but maybe doesn’t after all. I love the story of Thierry Guerta, the Frenchman who can’t help but document everything he sees and accidentally gets hooked up with the street artist Shepherd Fairy, who lets him tag along…everywhere. The footage following around street artists as they tag different spots around Los Angeles and the country and then abroad has a fantastic energy to it. Exuberance might be the right word. And while I buy Banksy’s LA show with the elephant and the celebrities, and I see the footage from Disneyland, am I really supposed to buy that Guerta put down his camera to make art himself? And if he did, and if during that time Banksy was back in London, then who picked up the camera to film? And why? There are negative implications about street art as a skill if Guerta really was able to create his own 2008 show. There are even more negative implications if none of that art was his and the whole thing was a sortof joke by Banksy, Shepherd Fairy and the other artists; a joke at the expense of their own audience, except that from their perspective, the audience may have gotten too big – or more accurately too commercialized – anyway, which means that pissing off dumb people you don’t want to buy your art will almost surely result in those that remain feeling an inflated sense of personal connection to the art, thereby possibly making them more likely to purchase more of it; which of course, starts the entire process of commercialization all over again. This movie will either sound exhilarating or exhausting. I found it fascinating and hilarious.

5. True Grit

The Coen Brothers don’t make prestige films and they don’t make standard genre pictures. And yet “True Grit” turned out to be both in a way, but only there’s nothing standard about anything they make. Some felt this was Coens-lite. I disagree. Every one of their major thematic concerns and motifs is represented in the film (blunt, brutal violence; the personal cost of seeking vengeance; the boundless, inventive dialogue; the odd one-scene characters) as well as the stark beauty of the landscapes captured by longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Most of all, there are three brilliant performances in Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon (who deserved a nomination much more than Jeremy Renner), and, in my favorite performance from the entire year, Hailie Steinfeld. She commands the screen at every moment, and she is so fierce – as when she unblinkingly forges a river on her horse – that I felt silly for not realizing the title is just as much about her as Rooster Cogburn. The Coens don’t play safe and they don’t cheat the consequences of their characters’ actions. Sometimes that comes at the expense of an emotional investment in their characters and results in a sortof detached bemusement. “True Grit” seems like it should fall into that same trap. The reason it doesn’t is Hailie Steinfeld.

4. The Fighter

Now my favorite male performance of the year, which belongs to Christian Bale as Dickey Eklund, the cracked out ex-boxer who can’t seem to let go of his past glory. Is he really so oblivious to his own deterioration? To the squalor around him? The recognition of those things in Bale is what makes his depiction transcendent; in fact, that’s what makes “The Fighter” so surprising as a whole. Who needs another boxing movie, was my thought going into the theater. You expect family issues and big fights and to feel like you’ve seen it all before. I don’t know why I didn’t have more initial faith in David O. Russell, a director who’s never made a movie I dislike. He finds the truth in each moment and doesn’t settle for easy resolutions like getting rid of your family for you girlfriend or turning your back on people who cause you pain. Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams (like you’ve never seen her before) lead the strongest ensemble of the year. There is a scene late in the film on Adams’ character’s porch, where she and Bale have to come to an understanding. It is confrontational and angry and you can see both actors putting themselves totally on the line. You expect soft sentiment and easy answers from the scene. What it gives you is a picture of brokenness trying to change; to turn and be mended.

3. The Social Network

For most movies, it would be a bad thing if the opening scene was the best in the movie, but somehow David Fincher’s “The Social Network” manages to feel like such a true extension of that scene (the perfect combination of exposition, character, and theme) that it all works. You see how deeply Zuckerberg’s ambition is rooted in pain. Every aspect is firing on all cylinders. Aaron Sorkin’s script is a technical marvel. Jesse Eisenberg (so deserving of his nomination, good for him!) and the other actors inhabit the roles, Trent Reznor’s score is diabolically good, and Fincher’s direction folds them all together in a way that leaves you breathless. How many amazing sequences does the film contain? My favorite is the Facemash sequence, where Zuckerberg first gets people’s attention. The way the film intercuts different scenes to create a simultaneous stream of dramatic action is like nothing I’ve seen before. I don’t think it’ll win Best Picture this year, but I think it will be remembered much longer than the film that does.

2. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World


Another double feature would be “The Social Network” and this movie. Both about pop culture, both endlessly inventive structurally, and you’ve got the Michael Cera/Jesse Eisenberg connection. I don’t know why “Scott Pilgrim” was so universally overlooked and underrated when it came out, but the film remains my favorite comedy of the year. Edgar Wright incorporates the breakneck pacing and tone of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” with the more personal stories from “Spaced.” This movie is so good it’s humbling. How many directors can have a three-joke sequence just using framing? From epic fights to hilarious characters to more on-screen cultural iconography than you can fend off without having to Continue – all the while maintaining a sense of story and theme and character that (far from being displaced) are enhanced by the visual style – this is the coolest movie of the year.

1. Toy Story 3

The fact that I wasn’t that interested in seeing the latest from Pixar only reinforces how shockingly good the final act of the trilogy was. What can I say about it? The opening reminded me of the hours I spent as a kid playing with action figures in my room. It shows the nexus of the numerous creative impulses. That’s what people like me saw in their mind. What an astounding character Woody is! Look at his dedication to get back to Andy, in whom he has unwavering faith, combined with his unrelenting love for his friends and his refusal to let them be hurt, even after they’ve hurt him. The fact that you know Woody will stop at nothing, and that his insistence is born from love and goodness, makes his moment of resignation in the film’s climax the most emotionally arresting thing I saw on film all year. There is something inexpressibly beautiful about the way they take each other’s hands, about the looks they share with each other. I’m telling you, it made my heart stop. It is a profound thing to reach the absolute brink of your ability as a creation. No other movie displayed that kind of looking-into-the-abyss moment like “Toy Story 3” did. For all its invention and humor and excitement and joy (the epilogue is heart-rending in its own way), that moment in the incinerator when we see Woody’s eyes change makes “Toy Story 3” the best film of the year.


New Day Today

Tomorrow too.

There’s a lot going into this post. It was a long weekend. It was good, but I was off and I was angry and I was making mistakes and being rude and inconsiderate and just pissed off to people I love.

Hey McNutty!

I said “fuck” a lot more than I usually do (which so-fucking-what?) but there was something behind it that isn’t usually there. Uh oh. Now this is going to sound silly: I finished Season 5 of “The Wire” last Friday (own the box-set folks, you just have to), at which point I immediately downed the special features. Some people think the final season veers off and contains choices its characters wouldn’t really make, particularly McNulty. I disagree. There is a moment when his partner – the ever-cigar-chomping Bunk – is scolding him for his actions and McNulty says, “They don’t get to win, we get to win!” That line contains untold reservoirs of anger and bitterness and rage – at the crime itself but also (moreso?) at the equally broken system in place and people in power to stop it. I can’t tell you how much I identified with that moment. It’s a callback to a monologue another character screams to inner city thugs earlier in the series, but it encapsulates his character. There is a particular brand of discontentment and failure and understanding that is McNulty’s alone. It’s the reason he remains the show’s “lead” character or at least central figure. “The Wire” in whole often echoes that perspective thematically and in many of the other characters’ story-lines. It’s the kind of thing that makes your chest go tight; the singular moment when your heart both swells with love and breaks in despair. McNulty lives that moment day after day.

So okay maybe I was a little pissed off. So much is broken it’s hard to know which way to move and which shard of glass will hurt your foot the least.

Be Afraid, For He is Awesome

On Tuesday I start filming a documentary about my friend and personal trainer, Shawn Richardson. I’ve never made a documentary before, and it’s been a while since I had to film anything myself. In the midst of occasional substitute teaching (Presbo!), looking for industry/permanent work, and a full workload of self-imposed writing, this will be a totally new experience. Which meant getting reacquainted with my camera. So today I struck out to a nearby park, intending only to film test-footage and work on camera movements, but after about 30 minutes, I started looking for details. I walked the entire park shooting bits and pieces as I went. By the time I left, I felt so much better. Calmer. Less constricted. I had to get outside myself, focus on other people, a whole community enjoying the beautiful weather on an important day.

I thought of looking up some MLK quotes, but it’d be a sham. I didn’t watch “The Wire” because of him or go to the park because of him. It just worked out this way and maybe it just often does. Truth and goodness and community don’t occur because of earthly or human perfection. That’s not what happens on this side of life, and it’s frustrating. We are neither the authors nor perfecters of our salvation or faith. But they exist in us and between us when we seek something outside ourselves together, regardless of how desperate the state of things has become.

So I made it into a short video; a mini-doc, if you will. I set it to a song off The Decemberists’ new album The King is Dead (which how appropriate?!) called “Calamity Song” (Again!).

So, as you saw… There’s all sorts of issues with the mini-doc, short as it is. Should have got more signs, sleeping people, bicycles, runners, skaters, food, smiles, laughing, feet, et al. I spent two hours there is all, and didn’t have the idea to even try to do anything with the footage until I was already gone, and by that point it seemed somehow wrong to go back. Nonetheless, lessons learned.

Top 10 Films of the Decade

(NOTE: See my entire Top 30 of the Decade HERE)

10. The Aviator

Martin Scorsese remade “Citizen Kane” and didn’t bother to tell anyone. A very different picture than most people are used to seeing from him, it brings with it the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career as Howard Hughes, airplanes and obsession. His portrayal of a man disintegrating from the outside in is haunting, even as those around him, particularly Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) try to pull him back into the world.

The movie is about a man corrupted by himself, not others. I think it might be Scorsese’s best film. It is a brilliant portrait of a man, pre-50’s Hollywood, and obsession. A great bio-pic in the way it focuses on a particular segment of Hughes’ life and allows it to speak for the rest of it.

9. Memento

This is the film that launched Christopher Nolan into view as one of the most original writer/directors of the decade, and it remains his masterpiece. The ever-under-rated Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, a man with no short-term memory who uses tattoos and notes to try to track down his wife’s killer.

The film unfolds backwards, with the ending first, so that we are completely in Leonard’s shoes. It’s much more difficult to interpret the behavior of someone you meet when you can’t remember your first impression, when you can’t tell how long or how well you know someone. The movie isn’t a gimmick, though. The movie is about what we do with the truth when we find it.

8. High Fidelity

John Cusack’s best movie hands down. This movie is the precursor to quirky romantic comedies that came later in the decade, but it’s different. It’s truer. Cusack’s Rob has been dumped and as he traces back through his relationships, something emerges he hadn’t quite noticed – he’s kindof an asshole.

But what a loveable one he is, and therein lies the movie’s biggest charm. It gets relationships so well and is so smart about them. My favorite is when he details the top 5 things he loved about his girlfriend. They’re small things, but they’re the most important. Also, the movie introduced us to Jack Black. Or maybe it unleashed him.

7. There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s intimate epic is making nearly everyone’s Decade List, and for good reason. This is one of the most unique films ever made. The way Anderson moves his camera, Daniel Day-Lewis’ career-defining portrayal of a man selling out his own soul bit by bit, Johnny Greenwood’s spare, curious score. This movie seems like it was made in its own universe. Anderson tells his stories his way, and the climax of this film left some angry, some dazzled, and everyone speechless.

Movies are rarely made like this, is the thing. This is a film and a performance that will be talked about for a long, long time.

6. Adaptation

A film that could have been called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Typewriter,” Charlie Kaufman created a story about himself creating the story he wrote out of a story he was writing that he couldn’t figure out how to write it so he wrote himself into it, which is what he did and what the film is. This is the best film ever made about the creative process and the struggle to know what to write and how to write and why to write and getting over yourself and just writing and maybe even, whether he knew it or not, how Charlie Kaufman’s fake-in-real-life, real-in-fake-life brother Donald was the best thing that ever happened to his movie.

Listen, it’ll be better if you just see the movie. It also has Meryl Streep and an Oscar-winning performance from Chris Cooper, and Nicholas Cage playing two roles. The way all of these people are searching for things and are lonely and collide, it’s just wonderful to see.

5. Kill Bill

I took a girl to see “Volume 1” and she walked out. I stayed. We’re not together anymore, but I’ve got a 4-hour masterpiece from Quentin Tarantino, so you won’t catch me complaining. For those who say “Volume 2” is better or “Volume 1” is more exciting, I say you’re missing the point. It’s one story, one movie, you just had to wait a while for the second part. In a style all his own, Tarantino frontloads the action and the movie, about Uma Thurman’s “The Bride” hunting down the man who tried to kill her – her husband. There’s kung-fu and some western and even some comic book. “Volume 1” has an incredible action set-piece in the restaurant, and “Volume 2” has my favorite scene- a flashback where The Bride finds out she’s pregnant just as someone comes to kill her. The conversation between The Bride and her would-be assassin (also a woman) shows Tarantino’s patience and skill a story-teller. I’m partial to “Pulp Fiction,” but this may be Tarantino’s most complete work.

4. The Incredibles

Not only is “The Incredibles” the best movie to come from Pixar, it’s also the best superhero movie ever made. There isn’t a wasted moment in Brad Bird’s movie, which is sortof like a combination of “Watchmen,” “The Fantastic Four,” and “American Beauty.” You’ve got super-heroes being sued for saving people. Everyone in the family has a unique, awesome power. There is endless commentary on the state of the suburban family. Come on! Plus, the action. The best sequence in the movie involves the young son, Dash (he’s fast), running from bad guys on an island. He’s been chased for a long time, and all of a sudden he looks down and realizes, to his total glee, that he is running on water. The combination of the score, the reveal, and Dash’s reaction make it a perfect moment. This is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen. And one of the smartest.

3. Traffic

“Traffic” is not the movie for the lazy. Convoluted plot-lines, dialogue-heavy, fast explanations of who people are and why they’re important, and a huge ensemble all surrounding the notion of the War on Drugs. Senators and Drug Czars, corrupt Mexican officials and cops trying to figure out their place. Kingpins and D.E.A. agents and informants, parents and children, and one man choosing whether or not to be corrupted.

The film won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director, and well-deserved. It’s my favorite Soderbergh picture for the way he coordinates all the stories and finds a bold look for each setting to help tell the story more clearly. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it asks the right questions and looks in the right places.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums

Another ensemble, Wes Anderson’s film does what all of his films do – it looks at the life of a family through the prism the patriarch’s effect on the rest of them. But it does what not quite all of his films do – it gives just the right amount of time to each character and weaves the stories together so that we can’t quite gauge how everyone will respond. It is funny and exciting and compassionate and sad and whimsical and quirky—that evil word that used to mean something better than it means now.

The movie is grounded by Gene Hackman’s performance as Royal, who isn’t so much an asshole as just more a son of a bitch. Anderson doesn’t play safe and the material gets dark, even bleak. But in one of the film’s final shots, a long-take that puts a button on the story but not the characters’ lives or issues, there is a definitive hope. Isn’t that just like a comedy.

1. The Lord of the Rings

I suppose there must be people who don’t like this series, but I don’t have much use for them. Peter Jackson solidified his place in film history with the best trilogy ever made. That’s a little unfair, since it’s really all one story. One glorious epic story about good and evil and love and death and regret and friendship and loyalty and pretty much anything worth anything.  This is truly awesome spectacle, with numerous amazing battle sequences (My favorite may be the battle and chase in the Caverns from “Fellowship…”), grand landscapes and maybe the biggest scope of any movie ever made.

But what sets it apart is it gives dimension to all those elements, they’re not cardboard cut-outs. There are difficult choices in hopeless moments and to say everything worked out in the end is pretty naïve. When Sam confronts a giant spider, it is loaded with the weight of saving Frodo, which itself is loaded with our knowledge that Frodo has been particularly horrible to Sam for quite some time. The movie blends its spectacle and story seamlessly, and the result is a great and unique entertainment that captivated audiences and critics.

Maybe this movie is #1 for me because these movies were the biggest event-films of this decade. I remember the planning that went into seeing it, the standing in lines for hours with family and friends. Going early to save seats. Seeing the movie over and over again because you knew you weren’t going to see anything else like it for 12 months until the next one came out.

I hadn’t read the books and even though I could guess how it would end, there was such a sense of anticipation about the films. They have a wonderfully mysterious quality to them that reaches something inside of me, longing and ready for adventure and danger and something bigger than myself. “The Lord of the Rings” tapped into that and did so with respect and care and true cinematic brilliance. It is the best film of the decade.

So Now Then

Ten years ago tonight, with the clock ticking toward midnight, there was an immense anxiety in me about what would happen. The world might forever be changed. It so filled my mind that I don’t really remember anything else I talked about that night, aside from this one thing – will I get to kiss my girlfriend? Y2K be damned, I didn’t care if the world ended or not; only about what it would be like to kiss her.

I didn’t. I chickened out. But it’s okay, we made up for it and then some for the next year or so.

Boy things were different back then. Looking back on the last ten years of my life, I am in the unique position of having come of age during this time, which is a strange thing and who knows, maybe ten years from now I’ll be saying the same thing about the next decade. But for now, I want to remember when.

This was the decade I graduated high school. And college. It’s the decade I got my first car. My first job. While things were in motion, this is the decade I fell in love with the movies and with acting and with writing. I directed my first movie. Isn’t it strange to think that 10 short years ago, I hadn’t seen my favorite movie of all time? Most of my favorite movies, in fact. I started reading books. Started reading The Bible. I hadn’t heard most of my favorite music yet. Think of it. All of these things that occupy my time and my mind and my heart and direct my life on a daily basis, and I didn’t have any idea they were out there. Things I can’t imagine being without; not the physical thing-ness of them, but the experience of them. The knowledge of them, the understanding of them. If you take enough of those things away, you take me away. I’m not me without them. I couldn’t be, I wouldn’t want to be, and I don’t know who I’d be. I’ve seen well over 1,000 movies in the last 10 years. Many of them good, some of them bad, and quite a few of them life-changing. Life-changing. A movie. A song. A television show. A fiction. A podcast. People doing things who I don’t know personally but somehow know deeply. Now how in the world does that happen?

And what about the people who do populate my life? Friendships that were only a few months or a couple years old are now lifelong bonds that have carried me through so much these years. People I didn’t know, or only knew peripherally. And now, what would life be without them? Where would I be? I had the immense fortune of having incredible friends around me at every turn these last 10 years. Where I would be without them is lost, completely stupidly lost. What kings and queens of goodness they are, what multitudes they hold.

There are small big things too. I voted for the first time, had my first beer, got my first tattoo, my first apartment, got my first corporate job, quit that job and moved to another state. I took my first trip out of the country, I went on vacation by myself and found I am a good traveling companion. I wrote and wrote and wrote thousands of pages of stories and journals and movies and essays and papers. Endless experiences and events and things done and things wished for and not received and regrets and elations and disappointments and poorly-timed, well-worded remarks that got me in mountains of trouble. 10 years ago I thought I was right all the time. Now I know the percentage is slightly lower, and things are often my own fault.

10 years is enough time, it turns out, to meet someone, love them, know them for 7 years, be hurt by them long enough and badly enough that you don’t know her anymore. 10 years of my life is still a pretty high percentage of it at this point (a little over 38% of it). And there is no bleed-over. It is a thing contained within one decade, a little parenthesis of a thing that, 20 years from now will matter, won’t matter, who knows? But there is before and there is after and it doesn’t reach either of them. It is cut off. That’s a little scary when you think about it.

10 years ago, I thought of my life in terms of my parents’ rhythms. Married by a certain age, children by a certain age, career by a certain age. It took time to realize that a different pattern was waiting for me. 10 years ago, I don’t think I could ever know I’d be sitting where I am today. If I talked to myself, I wouldn’t believe me. How much I had to learn. How much I have to learn. 10 years ago, I thought I would be a film actor. I don’t think I thought very highly of the theatre. 20+ plays later, I see I was a fool. The thrill of walking onto a stage in front of an audience and inhabiting another life is one of the most beautiful things in the world. The experience of being watched is similar to playing a sport, but it’s a different kind of thrill. I love them both. Still another is to write something you’re proud of and see it performed by someone else in front of a couple thousand people. And another to write and direct something, find the time and people and equipment to capture it on film, edit it, toil over it, and then see it projected onto a screen in a dark room with people you don’t know. To hear them react to it, find it is all out of your hands now. These things are magical. I wouldn’t trade these things for anything, and I wouldn’t ruin them by explaining them away to my younger self. If I never see them again, I’m glad for what I’ve got.

So now then. What have we learned? What conclusions can we draw? What do we do now? How can I do better? The best answer I know is to say that these aren’t questions reserved for the ends of decades, but for every day. Contentment in limbo. It sounds like an impossible thing, but I think that’s where the truth lives. If I find out, I’ll tell you in 10 years.

Trailer: The Movie – the Trailer

Finally, and at long last…

Here is the first trailer for “Trailer: The Movie.” The temporary score is “Crawl,” by Kings of Leon. Please send comments and let us know what you think of it.

I put it together over the last week or so, choosing the one style of trailer we didn’t exploit in the film itself – the all-music trailer. Adam provided creative input and general notes during the process.

For those who don’t know, the film has been submitted to numerous film festivals. As of now, we’ve not heard back one way or another. We’re hopeful, while also realizing that a 45 minute “short” might not work with some festivals’ programs.

Find out more about the film, including updates about film festivals, bios, and production diaries at

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers

NOTE: See trailer for the film at bottom of post.

Dan Merchant’s new documentary, “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers,” is a timely film, both in its use of popular documentary film techniques and its approach to Christians. In a time when the loudest voice usually wins the day, here is a film that is surprisingly pleasant. It  follows Merchant across the country as he seeks to understand the widening gap between faith and culture. With both sides of the isle locked in fisticuffs, how do you determine progress? Has the winner changed anyone’s mind? Is the only reason they’re declared the winner because the other side simply stopped arguing and walked away?

It is a sad case, indeed, when most popular documentaries are taking their cues from reality TV. They’re about gimmicks, not stories. Still, plenty of people are doing good, interesting work. Places like the “True/False Film Festival” in Columbia, MO showcase dozens of well-crafted, smart documentaries each February. Merchant’s film bats a little over .500 in this department. He works for an advertising company in Oregon, and there are times when he undercuts the film’s power by over-emphasizing clever-packaging. The film opens with “South Park”-inspired, paper-cutouts of celebrities and politicians and we watch while their fake mouths go up-and-down while their comments play. The comments are interesting, but the visuals feel cheap. It doesn’t really work.

The gimmicks that do work, though, are some of the most surprising, because they place Merchant himself in front of the camera, which is usually death for a documentary. And here’s the difference. When he shows up, he acts as a springboard. He’s listening, not preaching. He has a character called “Bumper-sticker Man” which is him in white coveralls with bumper-stickers from all faiths and creeds plastered on it. He walks around and asks people to talk about anything they like or dislike. He doesn’t argue with them, doesn’t try to convince them of anything. He records. He documents. He shuts up.

Let it Begin!

Let it Begin!

What also surprised me is how fair he was. A Christian himself, the first half of the film details the ways Christians miss the mark. From people explaining their perceptions of Christians to showing clips of Christians doing it all wrong, the film lets both sides speak for themselves. One of the most interesting moments is when Merchant sets up a fake game-show, “Family Feud” style. There is an entire set, the 3 camera set-up, the works. On one team are Christians; the other team, non-Christians. The goal of the game is to see which team understands the other side better. When asked about reasons for abortion, the Christians easily came up with answers like, because the victim was raped. But it was the non-Christians who got points because they understood that for some, no reason is needed. The Christians were stunned. The final score wasn’t even close. The Christians lost something like 275-50. Merchant repeated the game with college students: Christians vs. non-Christians. The Christians got shut-out.

What’s brilliant about the documentary is it didn’t try to cover the mistakes the Christians made. It highlighted them. Merchant set up a neutral experiment and reported its results, even when they aren’t flattering to his own beliefs. If all we know about the other side is what we’ve been taught on a Sunday morning, then we don’t know very much at all.

The point of the film, though, isn’t that Christians are stupid. It isn’t even that it’s all our fault. Later, he shows non-Christians going on World Hunger trips and their interviews afterwards are eye-opening. They are blown away by the love the Christians show, by their hearts for young children, by how much they give. The film’s most powerful sequence shows a group of Christians in Portland setting up under a bridge one night to feed, clothe and serve the homeless. They wash feet. They talk to them, hug them. There’s no sermon attached to it, no forced-message on top of it. Just love.

Another powerful sequence is also set in Portland, during a Gay-Pride celebration. Merchant sets up a Confession Booth. But once again, he inverts the gimmick. When people come in, Merchant sits them down and begins his confession. He apologizes for the behavior of the Church toward homosexuals. He apologizes for things he’s done to make it worse. He asks them for forgiveness. And you know what, it’s genuine. Almost everyone we see enter the booth thanks him for saying these things. They begin talking. Once again, the film doesn’t show it directly resulting in the conversion of any of these people. It just shows Christ’s love. That’s our part. God does the saving.

Watching these sequences and the reactions of the people, hearing them begin to open up about themselves, watching a dialogue begin by two people from such opposing sides, it is subversively powerful. It sets an example. This is a film that challenges Christians deeply and directly.

The film spreads itself a little thin at times, trying to cover every single possible topic. Its structure begins to spin out of control during the middle third, going too many places for too little time, and the result is an overload. Still, because of the number of great sequences, because the film ultimately isn’t interested in placing blame, because it documents reactions and events instead of staging them to make a pre-determined point, it is a very good film. It is also a decidedly Christian one. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Yeah, But What Do I Know?

I’ve had my film camera for only about 5 months. I’ve shot two short films so far, and now, moving forward, I feel like it’s time to close the gap of obvious things I don’t know. Everyone says it’s unfair to compare yourself at your age to a well-respected filmmaker when they were that same age. But here goes. I got a real treat tonight when I saw for the first time, Paul Thomas Anderson’s short film Cigarettes and Coffee. It is 26 minutes, stars Philip Baker Hall, is shot well, edited well, and made when he was 22 yrs old. Let the inadequacy begin! And while I can watch it and say, “Well, some of the dialogue is a bit too precious” I also have to look back at a whole heap of my own writing and say the same thing. Also, he was 22. Also, none of his full length films inspire that critique in me. Also, he moves his camera really well. His sound is good. His film looks like film. 

Where was I seeing this recently? Someone was talking about the distinction between the things you don’t know you don’t know and the things you know you don’t know. If you don’t know you don’t know, then you can’t be expected to take the initiative to learn right away. But if there are things you know you don’t know, then there is no fault but your own if you continue on in ignorance. I know I don’t know about the technical side of film. I know how to move the camera, how to construct shots and coordinate them. I know how to communicate with actors, and I can give them decent things to say. I don’t know how to light a shot. I don’t know how to get a higher quality shot with better resolution. Is it just getting better film? Are there functions on my camera that I can utilize better? I’ve thumbed through the manual, but I haven’t read it cover to cover. What other lenses do I need? What filters should I get? I don’t know how to make it look less like video and more like film. I don’t know how to get better sound from everything. I don’t know sound. DON’T KNOW SOUND. And I need to learn.

What I do know, though, is what I want to do. I’m writing a short film right now tentatively titled “Grande Venti Tall” which I think genuinely has the potential to be very very good. I’ve been writing a helluva lot recently, and one thing I know is, I don’t want to write something frivolous. I’m not interested in writing something simple and cheap. And already the “P” word is looming over me. The “E” word is close behind. But I don’t want to shoot some youtube video. It may be undue pressure, but I feel like I don’t have time to be dicking around. This is not to say that I am going to make serious, dramatic, unfunny movies. I intend to write a lot of comedy. But not “that” kind of comedy, you know? Yes, but even if I can manage to write it… can I make it and make it well? 


P = Pretentious / E = Elitist

It Has Come to This

June 2019
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