I’m not a parent. I’ve never seen a piece of myself shining in the eyes of a child. I can’t imagine what that is like, and I cannot fathom what it must be like to have it and lose it. I have lost my entire world to grief. When you go through it, there’s a pernicious lie you’re told in counseling, by people who don’t get it, by most of pop culture: it gets better. The pain goes away. It doesn’t. It does change. It changes you. The knife-sharp pangs that wrack you in the beginning become a dull roar. You learn to live around it, but the person you were before never comes back. It’s something you suspect as soon as you lose the person: I’m never going to be the same. The most honest assessment of the grieving process that I’ve ever heard comes from one grieving father to another in the most underrated film of 2017: Wind River.
Taylor Sheridan’s modern western crime thriller (it manages to tick all the requirements for at least three genres) was another spectacular script from the Sicario screenwriter and a very impressive directorial debut. As good as Gary Oldman was as Winston Churchill, I thought Jeremy Renner’s performance in this film was the best acting I saw last year. Renner is always strong, but to the detriment of his appreciation, his performances are usually understated character work. With Wind River he was able to blend his gift for nuance with a clear, deep connection to the material. The porch scene is so intensely honest that it nearly blew me out of the theater. It’s a testament to how entertaining the film is in the midst of dealing with the bleakest terrain a human soul has to cross that I was able to walk out feeling like I’d finally spent time with someone who got it. I wish I’d have gotten a counselor as good as the one Renner’s character got at that seminar in Casper.
This week I was having a discussion with a friend about whether directors are really storytellers at all or if they are helpless without a good script. I don’t think you can have a good movie without a good script. It’s the foundation of all great films. I remain perpetually baffled that movies spend $20 million on a special effect but won’t drop a quarter of that on a script. Some directors are just not great storytellers, but there are some who, when given something solid to work with (like Bob Gale’s great script for Back to the Future) can take those words and bring it to life in a way that exceeds anything printed on a page. Robert Zemeckis is absolutely at the top of the list of these “storytelling directors”.
Back to the Future, over 30 years after its release, still holds up as one of the great action comedies of recent memory. The film is full of iconic moments from the hoverboard chase, to Johnny B. Goode, to every time Christopher Lloyd bellows “GREAT SCOTT!”, but my favorite scene is the climactic clocktower set piece. CineFix in an Art of the Scene piece from a few years ago does a wonderful job of breaking down the nuts and bolts of how one of the most iconic scenes of the 1980s came to life. What’s probably most stunning is how much of the clocktower scene are practical effects. In an age when CGI has taken a lot of the ingenuity out of F/X work, you don’t see this kind of brilliance anymore. Back to the Future worked so well because it blended a great script, a great director, Michael J. Fox in his breakout role, and old-fashioned movie wizardry to tell a time-traveling tale that has, over the decades, become timeless.
To Kill a Mockingbird is rare adaptation of a literary classic that matches its source material. Harper Lee’s novel of a principled man defending an African-American accused of rape in Depression-era Mississippi was brilliantly brought to the screen over 55 years ago. It’s unfortunate that Mockingbird is as relevant now as it was when it was released in 1962. The sad paradox of the American experiment is that while our founding documents declare, as Atticus Finch does in his closing argument, that all men are created equal, the reality of American life has never achieved that ideal. All men-all people-are created equal, but they are not treated as such. Inequality and racism still exist, and no law can legislate them away. Change, if it comes, will come from the courage of decent men and women to stand up and do the right thing at the right time. That’s why the example of Atticus Finch still matters, and why his words still need to be heard today. Mockingbird is, quite simply, one of the best films of all-time, one everyone should see, and one that leaves its viewers better for having seen it. Those films are so rare. They’re not just classics; they’re treasures.
We recently lost a great director in Milos Forman and, while he left an impressive list of works, nothing approaches his accomplishment in Amadeus. The biopic of Mozart is a showcase for two things: Mozart’s music and the role F. Murray Abraham was born to play: Mozart’s composing rival Salieri. Some actors only get to be iconic in one role. That’s the case with Abraham, who has gone on to do some fine character work, but nothing that touches Salieri. The only thing worse than being bad at something is being very good at what you were born to do and sitting in the shadow of a legend. The high points of Amadeus are the scenes between a feeble, mad Salieri in an asylum conversing with a priest. They serve to connect the audience to the ongoing narrative of Mozart’s short life, and they become increasingly more menacing and unhinged as Salieri rails against God for turning his back on him and making Mozart his messenger through music. The composer gone mad ends the film absolving the other inmates having dubbed himself “The Patron Saint of Mediocrity”.
Serenade for Winds in B-Flat Major is my favorite piece of Mozart’s and the one Salieri chooses to try to explain what made Mozart’s music so transcendent. Hundreds of years since his passing, and Mozart is still the greatest composer of all-time. Even if you don’t think you know Mozart’s music, by the end of the film you realize how much you actually do and how much it still serves as the soundtrack of the human race. Salieri lived long enough to see his own works forgotten. Amadeus resembles its subject in 100 years from now, people will still watch this film in wonder and delight, both because of the music that inspired it and the brilliant film craft that wove an epic biography around it.
Courtroom dramas and great closing arguments have been a staple of cinema since the addition of words. It’s probably the best forum for monologues in a picture, and it gives an actor a chance to do a bit of stage acting for the camera. (Click here for my Top 10 Courtroom Scenes of All-Time) One of the very best closing arguments comes from 1982’s The Verdict which paired possibly the greatest actor of all-time (my favorite) in Paul Newman with one of the greatest directors of all-time in Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network), and one of the greatest screen and stage writers of all-time in David Mamet.
Newman always brought an honest conviction to whatever role he played, be it Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, Butch Cassiday, or alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin in The Verdict. His closing in The Verdict isn’t long at all (by that point in the trial Galvin knew it didn’t need to be). It’s simple, powerful and effective. Without being hokey or cornball it lays out the hope we all have for our justice system: that at the end of the day, honest people embody the law and do right by it and those on trial. We live in cynical times, and it’s hard to act as if we have faith still in the system. Maybe we shouldn’t. But listening to Newman orate, you want to still believe. In a career of over 50 years of powerful performances, this is just a page in Newman’s portfolio, but it’s a great one.