Recommended new books on filmmaking: My latest Film Stage feature

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My latest Film Stage books piece features some new (and newish) reading options looking at Mad Max: Fury Road, Robert Altman, Grand Budapest Hotel, and more.

If your idea of beach reading is Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steel, click away. (And reconsider your life choices.) However, if you plan to work on your tan while paging through weighty hardcover tomes about Robert Altman, Boyhood, and Grand Budapest Hotel, read on. We start—as one should—with George Miller’s fast-and-Furiosa masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road by Abbie Bernstein (Titan Books)

Many thoughts run through one’s head while watching Fury Road—Could George Miller’s film make the rest of this summer’s blockbusters look any weaker in the knees? Can fans stop worrying about the chronology? Why wasn’t late Howard Stern Show fan favorite Eric the Actor cast as the little person who looks through the telescope?—but the most pressing is likely, “How did they do that?!” The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road has some answers. From storyboards and sketches to insightful production photos, the book is an extravaganza of ugly-beautiful details. Some of it is haunting, including a still of a young “War Boy” in the making gazing in the distance and an extreme close-up of a disturbingly skeevy Nicholas Hoult. Some is surprising, including the concept that the “Wives’ quarters” are “filled with the world’s last remaining books.” All of it, without question, makes a rich film seem even richer. Abbie Bernstein’s book is a brisk, fascinating read, and a must-have for the Rockatansky completist.

The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz (Abrams)

Matt Zoller Seitz’s dazzling, marvelously designed 2013 book The Wes Anderson Collection was one of the finest film-related texts of recent years, but had one failing: Timing meant that it could not include 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel. That problem is now solved. The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious companion, featuring more than 250 pages of interviews (with Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Yeoman, and others), essays (from the likes of David Bordwell and Ali Arikan), and photos, artwork, and much more. There are even excerpts from the works of Stefan Zweig. Above all else, there are illuminating thoughts like this one, from Zoller Seitz’s preface: “[W]ith each successive viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a funny, really not­-so-funny thing happens: We realize that all these acts of self-reinvention and self-determination will nonetheless be trampled by the greedy and powerful, then ground up in the tank treads of history.”

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt (Scribner)

Comedian-actor-Twitter superstar Patton Oswalt is a cinephile extraordinaire, and Silver Screen Fiend—subtitled Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film—is one of the finest chronicles of movie love and its life-altering impact in some time. As the memoir progresses, Oswalt’s stand-up career slowly flourishes, but it’s the film talk that makes Fiend so memorable. His Day the Clown Cried anecdote alone makes this an essential read, as done his heartbreak after seeing The Phantom Menace. Oswalt’s thoughts on a second viewing of the Star Wars prequel are wonderfully well-reasoned: “I guess I’m hoping for some sort of redemptive miracle, or that maybe I was wrong in my initial assessment. Also, there are parts of it I like. It’s sheer uncut nostalgia. … But it still sucks.”

Star Wars Epic Yarns: A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi by Jack and Holman Wang (Chronicle Books)

The Star Wars Epic Yarns trio is summarized nicely on the back of each book: “Twelve handcrafted felt scenes + twelve words = one epic microsaga!” That about sums it up. While the twelve words are a bit banal for readers over, say, 6 (“trouble,” “hurt,” “boom!”), the scenes are stunningly detailed. Yoda, in particular, is adorable, and the key moments from A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are all here. My Star Wars-obsessed 4-year-old finds the three books delightful, and so do I.

Altman by Kathryn Reed Altman and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan (Abrams)

The career of Robert Altman demanded a colorful, photo-heavy coffee-table book like Altman. This visual biography is co-authored by the late director’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, and film critic Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. They have created a wildly entertaining summary of the man’s career and life, including scores of interviews (collaborators represented include Lily Tomlin, Jules Feiffer, and Julian Fellowes) and unique insight into the peaks and valleys of his life. The lows of the 1980s are especially interesting, but readers will be most moved by the photos and memories of his final days. The last photo of husband and wife, taken at home shortly before his passing in 2006, is gloriously loving. “I think it’s a very special picture,” Reed Altman writes. That’s an undeniable sentiment.

Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film by Matt Lankes (University of Texas Press)

Last year around this time, most film fans were anxiously awaiting the chance to see Richard Linklater’s Sundance smash, Boyhood. In a matter of weeks after opening, the 12-year-in-the-making backstory had become part of pop culture lore. While the film failed to pick up the Oscars many thought it should (besides Patricia Arquette’s much-deserved Best Supporting Actress statue), the passage of time has not diminished the boldness of Linklater’s approach. The gorgeous photographs by Matt Lankes in Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film make it even easier to appreciate the uniqueness of production. Here are the faces of Boyhood—all of them, from Mason and his mom and dad to the guy behind the counter at the liquor store. The behind-the-scenes pics, especially, demonstrate what an experience the film must have been to make, and remind us how thrillingly alive it felt to viewers.

 

Vacation Reads (Recent Film-centric Novels)

Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme (Overlook Press)

Self-Styled Siren blogger Farran Smith Nehme’s debut novel is an utter delight. Movie-loving lead character Ceinwen Reilly is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi now living in 1980s New York. She finds herself on a quest to track down a long-lost silent film, and I find myself hoping that Emma Stone is cast in a big-screen adaptation of Reels.

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (Viking)

It is hard not to be fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years in Hollywood. In West if Sunset, the great Stewart O’Nan (Snow Angels) imagines the final years of the author’s life. The novel is wonderfully detailed and hugely moving. It’s a fine companion to Fitzgerald’s own The Love of Last Tycoon.

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo (Knopf)

Jo Nesbo is no stranger to Hollywood—see Headhunters, and, hopefully, eventual adaptations of his Harry Hole novel The Snowman and the stand-alone novel The Son. (Channing Tatum is attached to the latter.) Blood on Snow, the compulsively readable story of a crime scene “fixer,” has Leonardo DiCaprio on board as producer and possibly star. Note to Leo: Blood is bloody good. Take the lead role, please.

The Revenant by Michael Punke (Picador)

Speaking of DiCaprio, the actor’s next film is The RevenantBirdman Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s adaptation of Michael Punke‘s 2003 novel. If the recently re-released book is any indication, DiCaprio has perhaps one of his most formidable performances yet in store. This tale of a 19th century a fur trapper on a quest for revenge is a captivating read. Buy it now, and ponder what Iñárritu and his stellar cast (which also includes Tom Hardyand Domhnall Gleeson) will bring to the table.

 

Christopher Schobert’s top 10 films of 2014 (via The Film Stage)

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I was thrilled to contribute my thoughts on the this year’s best films to The Film Stage. Take a gander, and see if you agree. (See the site’s top 50 list here.)

I saw the best film of 2014 in April, but do not take that as evidence of a weak year. It was, in fact, a rather wonderful 12 months of cinema, perhaps the finest in some time. Consider some of the enthralling films that did not make the cut: The Raid 2, The Double, Enemy, Gone Girl, The Trip to Italy, Snowpiercer, Locke, Jodorowsky’s Dune, The LEGO Movie, The Theory of Everything, Joe, Edge of Tomorrow, Life Itself, Palo Alto, Nymphomaniac, Like Father Like Son, Land Ho!, and Big Hero 6. And many came nowhere near a list of the top 15, but offered distinct pleasures: Lucy, Neighbors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Belle, Godzilla, The Skeleton Twins, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Fault in Our Stars, In Bloom, The One I Love, Blue Ruin, We Are the Best!, and Magic in the Moonlight.
Consider, also, that I have not had the chance, for one reason or another, to see Inherent Vice, Goodbye to Language, Selma, Love is Strange, Calvary, Unbroken, Citizenfour, Pride, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, among others. Oh, and there are also two biggies that were handsome, well-acted, but, to me, disappointing: Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game. Incidentally, the worst film of the year was an easy one — the Cusack-De Niro abomination The Bag Man — but I must also acknowledge the three big-budget wannabe-monsters that wasted time, money, and talent: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transcendence, and RoboCop. Now, on to happier thoughts.

Honorable Mentions: Force Majeure, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Immigrant, Maps to the Stars, Obvious Child

10. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski)
Ida is the definition of a seemingly out-of-nowhere, quietly powerful spellbinder. The performances from Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida and Agata Kulesza as her aunt Wanda rank among the year’s finest, and deserve Oscar consideration. (It’s not going to happen, but they deserve it.) Ida is a haunting experience, with an ending that ranks among the boldest and most engaging of 2014.

9. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Between Enemy and Nightcrawler, it was one delightfully creepy year of Jake Gyllenhaal. The latter, from director Dan Gilroy, is an incisive, acidic view of the creation of a monster — in this case, Gyllenhaal’s amoral videographer. Watching it at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was downright exhilarating, as Nightcrawler revealed itself to be more than just a goosebump-y thriller. Indeed, this is bold, go-for-broke filmmaking that will look even more impressive in years to come.

8. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The buzz emanating from Cannes was on the money: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a Russian tragedy that lingers in the memory. What is perhaps most interesting is how the story slowly develops, moving from small-town politics to gender study and, eventually, a meditation on luck, fate, and violence. The imagery here is unforgettable, and the performances stunning. Leviathan is a dark and incisive look at life in modern Russia.

7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Like the imagery in Leviathan, the faces in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night are unforgettable. Well, one face, actually: that of the great Marion Cotillard. As spare and contemplative as the Dardennes’ best work, Two Days, One Night has an emotional urgency that is almost overwhelming. Cotillard makes the fate of Sandra — a factory worker attempting to persuade her co-workers to give up their bonus, allowing her to keep her job — the fate of the audience. This is her finest performance. And that’s saying something.

6. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
The Sidney Lumet talk is apt, as J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year certainly captures the scope and pulse of the late master’s dramas. But this is a dark-side-of-the-American-dream epic with a reach all its own. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain create the most compelling couple of the year, and by the time the credits role, the viewer feels as if they have just witnessed the most significant moments in the birth of a giant.

5. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
It seemed almost impossible that Iñárritu’s Birdman could live up to the festival hype, but indeed it did. Yes, it is a technical marvel. But, above all else, it is an actor’s showcase. Watching Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson levitate, contemplate, rage, and annoy makes the film one of this year’s most pleasurable, and he is equaled by Edward Norton and Emma Stone, especially.

4. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s romantic, cool, mesmerizing love story is an idiosyncratic gem, and a vampire film that feels utterly, thrillingly fresh. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are remarkable as the central couple, the visuals are lush and mysterious, and the soundtrack enhances vistas both urban and exotic. The overarching feel is unmistakably that of a Jarmusch picture, but on a heretofore unreached scale, and its open-ended conclusion is thematically appropriate. It makes the audience feel as if Jarmusch’s dreamlike film could loop back to the beginning, in a circle, and run again, again, and again. How wonderfully fitting.

3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s film is one of the finest studies of adolescence ever made, and a remarkable achievement that pulls off something extraordinary: It makes one feel as if you’ve watched a fictional character grow up before your eyes — because you have. Sort of. Admittedly, being a parent made Boyhood resonate on a deep level, but its force is obviously not limited by age or life status. I think audiences have embraced Linklater’s film so strongly because it makes so many other coming-of-age stories seem trite and overblown. By focusing on the little things, Linklater made a film that can speak to nearly everyone.

2. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Whiplash is one of the most exhilarating films in years, and certainly one of the finest of 2014. It’s also one that may end up severely misunderstood. Many reviews see the theme as very direct: the only way to become a great artist is through merciless practice, preferably under the tutelage of a tyrant. I’m not sure it is quite so clear-cut. Yes, the movie ends — SPOILER — with Andrew finally winning the respect and approval of the drill sergeant-esque Fletcher. For a few moments, at least. It’s a victory, to be sure, but not necessarily an indication of stardom, or even greatness. This success does not mean director Damien Chazelle necessarily believes it was all worth it, or that he agrees with Fletcher’s methods. It is the appropriate ending, and a great one at that.

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is the film I referenced at the start, the one that I saw in April and never stopped swooning over. But what is it, exactly, that makes this film come in so far ahead of any other in 2014? Perhaps it is the way Skin makes the Scottish landscape look positively, well, alien. Maybe it is the incredible performance from Scarlett Johansson, an absurdly fascinating score, and the brain-searing imagery. Or perhaps it is how those elements come together for one entrancing experience. This is the most haunting, complex film of the year, and a sad, disturbing work of art. There are scenes that continue to linger in my memory months after that first viewing — chiefly the sight of a crying baby, alone on the beach. That sequence, and others, still resonate, and they will for some time to come. Quite simply, any year in which there is an Under the Skin is a great year for cinema.

The best of 2014 … so far: “Skin,” “Boyhood,” “Lovers,” and “Ida”

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I’m just going to say it: 2014 has been a fantastic year for cinema. There have been years in which we were forced to wait impatiently for the fall awards season in order to start pondering the year’s best, and while this summer has been mostly horrendous (for blockbusters, at least), there have been several truly great films. In fact, my top 10 for the year to date would be a respectable list five months from now, and that’s pretty extraordinary. Without further ado:

  1. “Under the Skin”: Still the most entrancing, bold, memorable cinematic experience of the year for me. Watching it a second time only affirmed my belief that this is a complex masterpiece of the first degree.
  2. “Boyhood”: While the backlash is likely starting to stir, I stand by my belief that Richard Linklater’s film is one of the finest studies of adolescence ever made.
  3. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama is structured like a circle — the end is another beginning, and I could sit through several more.
  4. “Ida”: It took me awhile to catch up with this powerful Polish drama, but it was worth the wait. Its ending is one of the boldest and most engaging in years.
  5. “The Immigrant”: It’s on Netflix, right now. No excuses.
  6. “Snowpiercer”: The best action film of the summer? Undoubtedly. Probably the year.
  7. “Grand Budapest Hotel”: I still believe this is Anderson’s best since “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and a glorious study of one era changing into the next.
  8. “The Double”: There have been two great doppelganger films in 2014. This was the darkly funny one …
  9. “Enemy”: … and this was the comically disturbing one. But I’m not sure I can watch “Enemy” again, so terrifying is its final shot. Shiver …
  10. “The Raid 2”: I’m as surprised as anyone that I found this hyperkinetic sequel so involving. It makes most action films look rudimentary and utterly dull.

There are a number of fine films hovering on the outside:

  • “Like Father Like Son”
  • “Palo Alto”
  • “The Lego Movie”
  • “Jodorowsky’s Dune”
  • “Abuse of Weakness”
  • “Blue Ruin”
  • “Mistaken for Strangers”
  • “Joe”
  • “Stranger By the Lake”
  • “In Bloom”
  • “Ukraine is Not a Brothel”
  • “Nymphomaniac” (both volumes, although I prefer Vol. 1)
  • “The Lunchbox”
  • “Jimi: All Is By My Side”
  • “Locke” (best film of 2014 involving the pouring of concrete)
  • “Finding Vivian Maier”

And there are also some that I still need to see. Note the absence of “Transformers.” These include:

  • “We Are the Best”
  • “Obvious Child”
  • “Hellion”
  • “The Rover”
  • “Life Itself”
  • “Night Moves”
  • “Edge of Tomorrow”
  • “22 Jump Street”
  • “The Fault in Our Stars”
  • “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
  • “Cheap Thrills”
  • “Closed Curtain”
  • “Lucy”

One final note: My wife and I are expecting our second child to enter the world any day now, so I will likely be unable to post for a week or two — out on baby business.