At the start of this week I went for a job interview. The final question put to me wasn’t exactly what I was expecting: what was the best film I’d seen in the last year? I didn’t pause; I didn’t have to think; it was an easy choice. Beasts of the Southern Wild is actually the best film I’ve seen in a few years.
Miraculous and magical are the words that most readily come to mind. I’m guilty of over-usingthe phrase ‘like poetry on the screen’ for movies that I love but, in this case, I think it’s absolutely justified.
The setting is the fictional community of The Bathtub, which is clearly a hall-of-mirrors reflection of the population that lived on the edge of New Orleans during the floods. It’s a bleak, derelict, backwards corner of society and is home to the tough-as-nails Hushpuppy, who survives in a mystical world that exists largely in her own head, and her dad, Wink. As they struggle to survive, we become as intimate with nature and as confused about the boundaries between reality and fantasy as Hushpuppy – but the film is never anything but brilliant and beautiful. And despite having a dream-like quality, it feels grounded and authentic thanks to it’s stunning novice cast.
Everything comes together here. The soundtrack (by Dan Romer and director, Benh Zeitlin) reflects and drives the film. Whenever I now listen to it, wherever I am, I’m transported to a different place… back to Hushpuppy’s world.
This film is touched by genius and I’d urge everyone to see it.
I always adored movies as a kid – from Dumbo to Mary Poppins (still one of my all-time favs!), from Ferris Bueller to Rocky… but it was seeing Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the space of a month when I was 15 years old that changed the way I looked at films forever. My first proper film crushes!
To be honest, I didn’t entirely understand either film at the time. When I watched both again a couple of years later they opened themselves up to me (a bit). But at 15… they were beautiful… no, somewhere far beyond beautiful. Poetry on the screen. They were epic in every way. They did more than just go from A to B to C: they communicated some sort of profound meaning and story that I couldn’t quite grasp but that felt really, really important. I think the fact that I felt I was missing something definitely helped me to become completely consumed by them – I mean, we all want to feel as if we’re appreciating something slightly above our heads, right? Especially as teenagers.
2001 is a story about the evolution of humankind via a black, alien monolith that we are first introduced to at The Dawn of Man, as it’s appearance on earth seems to stimulate apes to use tools and weapons. The rest of the movie essentially follows mankind’s quest to understand it’s own origins and future through a search for the origin of the monolith. It’s gripping and tense and exciting – but rather than creating thrills or relateable characters, it is primarily focussed on being quiet and patient and intent on filling us with wonder. Yeah, wow-erama.
Apocalypse Now, set during the Vietnam war (but very far from a typical war film), is about a mission of one soldier (Willard) down a river to hunt down a decorated war hero (Kurtz) who has ‘gone native’ and may have caused horrific atrocities. Behind this framework, it is a story about the reality of war – the horror – not so much about Willard finding Kurtz, but discovering what Kurtz himself discovered. It is dark but beautiful, operatic and horrific, and it reaches in to some very dark places of the human soul.
However, it wasn’t just that I was young that made me love these films. The directors, Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola, were ahead of the rest of the world with what they were putting on screen. It is genuinely impossible for me to pull out favourite scenes from either film because pretty much every scene in each is a classic. The imagination and the skill required to make art like this is almost beyond my comprehension. Big love. Big, big love for these movies being awesome and showing me the very limits of what cinema can do. I’m not sure that either has ever been matched.
Everything is open to interpretation. That’s the beauty of things. There’s no right way or wrong way; we take what we can from what we experience. This series of posts is about the stuff that inspires me. I’m not trying to convince you – I’m just brain-dumping some fanboy love on to the page. Not everyone will agree. That’s ok.
For me, Paul Thomas Anderson is a writer/director who is absolutely dedicated to film-making as art. That doesn’t mean that he makes pretentious, inaccessible films (well, not to me) but, in a world in which movies have too often become disposable, brainless and fit for the lowest common denominator, Anderson produces work that strives for greatness. I love the scale of his ambition and that he paints on huge canvasses – although he handles big set pieces and under-stated gestures with the same skill.
Yes, he’s flawed… of course he is. Of Anderson’s most recent film, The Master (2012), Roger Ebert said, “In its imperfections… we may see its reach exceeding its grasp. Which is not a dishonourable thing.” I think I liked The Master more than Roger did, however I do agree that it’s ‘reach exceeded it’s grasp’. That’s undoubtedly a fault – but it’s actually something I also love. I always want a film-maker (or any artist) to risk failure, to strive to produce something brilliant and better and better and better than to settle for mediocre or safe… or worse.
Part of this is the way that his stories don’t only live through characters or styling or location but through the framework he uses to tell them. In Punch Drunk Love (2002), he told a story about the craziness of being love by making a film that was itself insane and disorientating in every way. There Will Be Blood (2007) is a movie about greed and power, based around the volatility of California’s oil wells at the start of the 20th Century, which rumbled along with a frightening build-up of tension and energy before gushing to a raw, unpredictable finale.
I think that actors like working with him because of these things but also because he clearly treats all of his characters with care and tenderness. This doesn’t only shine through in those that we can more easily root for, such as the naïve, eager-to-please Eddie Adams in Boogie Nights (1997) but also in characters like Daniel Plainview, the tyrannical, power-thirsty oilman in There Will Be Blood. Each is crafted, looked after as they grow and sent out in to the world with love.
That’s how he managed to pull Tom Cruise’s career-best role out the bag in Magnolia (1999) – which is a great, great film. He gave us the unexpectedly brilliant performance that it now seems Adam Sandler was always destined to deliver in Punch Drunk Love, and he brought us back a great Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights.
Anderson is a painter, poet and storyteller. His work is brave and ambitious, it’s epic and intimate, he makes me question things I thought I already knew and he makes me want to do better, better, better myself. When I walk out the cinema having watched a Paul Thomas Anderson film, I feel as if there really is a genuine opportunity to do what Neil Gaiman told us to always do: Make. Great. Art.