I yearn for the days of the auteur director, when you could see a couple of frames of a movie and know it was a Kubrick or a Fellini or a Bergman. How many directors can we say that of these days? Scorsese, maybe Tarantino. His “Django Unchained” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” will have to wait for 2013.
In the meantime, it seemed evident this past year from the limited number of movies I saw that they rise and fall on the strength of the screenwriter. I think you could even say that of Tarantino’s films, for better of for worse. You could certainly say that of the inferiority of the Nolan brothers’ “The Dark Knight Rises,” compared with “The Dark Knight.”
So it’s no wonder that my favorite two movies were written by two of the best playwrights in the English-speaking world – “Lincoln” by Tony Kushner and “Seven Psycopaths” by Martin McDonagh.
1: Yes, “Lincoln” owes more to Kushner than to The Great Spielberg. As was true in “Munich,” the screenwriter brings a greater sense of sophistication to Spielberg's work, particularly, in this film about the president’s wrangling for the votes to end slavery. It almost avoids the director's trademark sentimentality, though Spielberg couldn't help himself in the final minutes of the film, beginning with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and ending with the assassination.
Until then, Kushner does a great job of making the film somewhat of a parable for President Obama and health care, though presumbably he didn’t stoop to the kind of political shenanigans that Lincoln’s underlings do in the film. Give credit, though, to Spielberg not only for bringing Kushner on board, but for being such a good actor’s director. Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones both deserve Oscars.
2: “Seven Psychopaths” is a different kettle of movie altogether. McDonagh takes very little seriously, least of all conventional storytelling tropes. He doesn’t have much patience for uplift, either, though in a perverse kind of way, there is uplift within the framework of telling a story boldly and entertainingly. His protagonists do learn something about the world and themselves by story’s end and so do we. Whether it does them, or us, any good is another question.
Like Woody Allen, McDonagh is able to attract top actors to work on his less than enormously budgeted movies. Christopher Walken – maybe the country’s top psycho actor? – did great things on Broadway with “A Behanding in Spokane” – though he’s the gentlest of the title characters. Woody Harrelson is at the other end of the spectrum and equally startling.
The story revolves around a blocked screenwriter – ha ha – played by Colin Firth, who’s trying to write a screenplay about psycho killers and is helped by a real-live one (Sam Rockwell). Shades of “Bullets Over Broadway,” though no one will mix up Martin McDonagh’s sensibility with Woody Allen’s except that they both have killer (sorry) senses of humor.
3: “Silver Linings Playbook” is a great case study in the importance of good writing. David O. Russell’s film was one of the more enjoyable movies of the year, but even this indie darling showed he is really a conventional filmmaker at heart. The great achievement of Matthew Quick’s novel is to show that life isn’t a Hollywood movie. I wish Russell had hired Quick to write the screenplay because the film suggests that life does imitate Hollywood. (Life vs. Hollywood is a theme of "Seven Psycopaths" as well.)
“The Master,” meanwhile, gets away from Paul Thomas Anderson on two counts. Though it’s beautifully shot, Anderson doesn’t really develop the fascination and hypnotic effect that cult leaders like the one played by Philip Seymour Hoffman have on people. Instead he lets Joaquin Phoenix take over the story and over the top it goes.
4: “Argo” was another enjoyable movie, though I don’t really get the deification of Ben Affleck. He knows how to tell a story cinematically, certainly, and give him props for framing the Iranian hostage story in the context of American foreign policy malfeasance in supporting the Shah. Still, this film, like his others, is a pretty conventional Hollywood film at heart.
5: Movie houses have also been given over to live telecasts of opera and theater. The Coolidge has been showing National Theatre offerings, including this past year’s hot ticket in England, “Frankenstein,” starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating roles as the doctor and the creature. I have mixed feelings about these telecasts, but it was great fun seeing the two contemporary Sherlock Holmeses on TV (Miller on CBS, Cumberbatch on PBS) acting together.
1: Speaking of Frankenstein, if you’re still looking to splurge on a favorite creature get him (or, less likely, her) “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” on Blu-ray. The eight films have been lovingly restored, beautifully packaged, and generously endowed with bonus features. James Whale is represented by three of his great films – “Frankenstein,” “Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man,” but the most complete restoration is Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” Trivia question. What actor was in all four movies? Boris Karloff? Bela Lugosi? Claude Rains? Nope. Dwight Frye.
2: And in the careful-what-you-wish-for category, and bringing the conversation full circle, it took Kino Classics and the Library of Congress to finally get Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film, “Fear and Desire” released. Now we know why Kubrick was so reluctant to release it. You can see elements of his amazing cinematic style coming into focus, but even Kubrick can’t survive the purple ‘50s antiwar prose of Howard Sackler. Still, for Kubrick completists, it’s invaluable. And it includes a short documentary, “The Seafarers,” made for the Seafarers International Union, movingly quaint for its support of unions. It's more notable, though, for Kubrick’s roving eye that captures the period a la “Mad Men” and dolly shots that would become part of his later style.
This program aired on December 31, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.