Adam Stovall's Doing It
I wrote a short film. I then tried to direct said short film. It did not end well…

A while back, my friend convinced me I needed to direct a short film. Not that it was difficult for him to convince me I needed to direct something before I jumped to features - I remember hearing Stephen Gaghan talk about how Abandon was the first thing he ever directed, and that movie suuuuuucked. My biggest problem was that I don’t have a lot of ideas for short films. My Dad always says “Where other people see a sentence, you see a novel.” Which is to say, I tend to get caught up in the world of a story, and before you know it I’ve made it into a feature-length story.

Then I woke up one morning and a guy’s voice was in my head talking about the first time he saw the girl he was going to marry. Somehow, this snowballed into a love letter to bars. It is possible I enjoy drinking more than the next guy…

So I knocked out the script and we built a crew and I invited some people to join the cast…and that’s where it all started to fall apart.

Truth be told, I thought our first night of shooting went well. Granted, we can’t use any of the footage we shot that night, and one of my cast members was maybe-kinda-sorta sexually assaulted on her walk home, but everyone had a good time whilst actually on set. That counts for something, right? RIGHT???

Shortly after this, we gathered the cast for a read-through. I don’t remember the time we were set to start, but I do remember getting a text from one of my actors at 10am saying he was drunk and wouldn’t make it to the read-through. Everyone else showed up.

Our first day of shooting with everyone on set…did not suck. Maybe I’m grading on a Bell Curve you’ll hear about in a second, but I did not hate that first Sunday morning shoot. Some actors were off-book, some were not. We were shooting in a bar, and they were drinking actual booze and beer, which was not the best call I realize now. Still, we had fun. Extras showed up and stood where I told them to stand. It was nice. We called Cut, and some watched World Cup soccer while I drank and read an old script of mine with a friend. See? Nothing to hate there. My Dad was even on set at the beginning!

The next weekend…sucked. First of all, we had a rehearsal during the week, wherein I think I first started to glimpse the soon-to-be-inescapable truth that I did not know what I was doing. Two night before we’re back shooting, I have a nervous breakdown. The morning before the shoot, I have a physical collapse. I get to set, and soon discover that one actor is running late and one is not coming at all. The whole day, my DP thinks I’m having a heart attack. One of the actors who is there, is still not off-book. Nothing is good. I hate everything. I want to punch. I want to drink.

We call Cut. Nobody really hangs out this time. I sit with some friends and try to make it seem like we did not all just waste a day. I find out a couple friends passed on paying gigs to be there with me. This does not ease my worry.

Days later, my head starts to clear. I begin to realize that I am not a director. Not yet, at least. I spent many years working on my craft as a writer, and it’s ludicrous to think I won’t have to do the same with directing. I look at the piece I was trying to direct, and realize that I was doing it all wrong. I thought, since it was my first time directing, I should play to my strengths as a writer - which means dialogue. Problem is, it became solely a dialogue piece. There was no visual sense to the piece. 

Now that I knew what at least one of my problems was, I wanted to find a way to remedy it. Far as I can tell, this means directing some abstract pieces that are solely dependent on me for the visual storytelling, like music videos. Which is what I’m doing now.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back and retry my hand at the short film. At least one friend has said he’d like to take a crack at it, if we can first do a rewrite on the script.

Anyway, that’s all a long way of saying that while I’m not a director now, I’m doing what I can to become one. And while I’m doing that, you should feel free to peruse the script for the short film, as I have included it in this post. The formatting did not carry over, hence the colons. Hope you don’t hate it.

THE BAR

White titles on a black background. Under this, we hear glasses clink and distant conversations. Then…

PAUL (V.O.): Worst day of my life. I mean, WORST day - the Goldsmith Move…

INT. BAR - EVENING

Five friends sit around a table that is covered in beer bottles and cocktail glasses. There’s a decent crowd filling out the bar, but that’s not important. The only people speaking will be these five friends: Anna, Paul, Kevin, Ben, and Roger.

ANNA: What’s “The Goldsmith Move”?

PAUL: The Goldsmith Move. You’ve never heard of this?

Anna shakes her head as she takes a drink.

PAUL (CONT’D): Oh man… My second time supervising a move, and we drop one of those upright pianos on the daughter’s leg.

INT. CAR - DAY

Paul sits behind the wheel of his idling car, clearly trying desperately to stave off a nervous breakdown.

PAUL (V.O.): I’m wrecked with guilt, and realizing that I’m probably getting sued, my employer’s probably getting sued, and I’m probably out of a job.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back in present day.

KEVIN: Kinda makes you realize the hope a half-measure can hold.

The others just look at him.

KEVIN (CONT’D): You said “probably”. You were getting sued, your employer was DEFINITELY getting sued, but you said “probably”. You don’t see how hopeful that is?

Again, they just look at him.

PAUL: Anyway…

Attention returns to Paul.

EXT. CAR - DAY

Paul gets out of the car, but can’t bring himself to move away from it. He just stands there, staring at the building in front of which he has parked.

PAUL (V.O.): Then it dawns on me that the second I walk in that door, I’m gonna have to explain it all to Amy. I mean, I haven’t gotten MY head around things - how am I gonna explain it to someone else? And then I see the bar.

Our attention shifts with Paul’s to a nearby bar. Paul walks towards it.

PAUL (V.O.) (CONT’D): I must’ve walked and driven past the bar hundreds of times without ever really noticing it. But today, I needed a drink.

INT. BAR - CONTINUOUS

Paul walks in and finds a seat at the bar.

PAUL (V.O.): Bartender sees me, and without saying a word, he pours a beer and puts it in front of me.

We see the bartender do this, but we never see the bartender’s face. Paul’s worry start to lessen and he gives a grateful smile as he drinks his beer.

PAUL (V.O.) (CONT’D): It’s a simple thing, but important - He knew. He took one look at me, and he knew exactly what I needed

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back to present day.

PAUL: And I knew I’d found my bar.

Paul finally gets to take a drink.

ANNA: Yep, I’d never heard that before.

PAUL: What about you two, when did this place become your bar?

We now see Roger sitting next to Anna, obviously on the opposite side from Kevin. Roger and Anna look at each other.

ROGER: I’d say probably…

ANNA: The fight, right?

ROGER: Yep.

PAUL: The fight? Come on, I told mine.

ANNA: It’s dumb.

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Anna and Roger sit next to each other at the very end of the bar, not talking to each other.

ANNA (V.O.): It was one of those fights where it goes on so long that you don’t even remember what you were fighting about in the first place, but you can’t stop because there’s momentum and you can’t just not fight.

ROGER (V.O.): And for some reason, we thought it’d be a good idea to go down to the bar. We’re just sitting there, sullenly drinking our beer and not talking, because we’re awesome.

The bartender, Teddy, walks over and leans against the bar to get closer to Roger and Anna.

ROGER (V.O.) (CONT’D): Then Teddy comes over and proceeds to tell a joke.

Teddy tells the joke, but it’s Roger’s voice we hear.

ROGER (V.O.) (CONT’D): What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice!

Teddy laughs at his own joke, but Roger and Anna are still a little too stunned to laugh.

ANNA (V.O.): I couldn’t believe it. It’s not like the worst joke I’ve ever heard, but telling a domestic abuse joke to a fighting couple just seems wrong, right?

Then Roger starts to break.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back to present day.

ROGER: And then I laughed.

ANNA: And then you laughed. Which only encouraged Teddy - he starts telling stories that will forever live in my head.

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Teddy is in full raconteur mode.

ANNA (V.O.): He tells one about drinking with a buddy who used to work at a bar that had a second level with a balcony on top of the bar area. If you looked over the edge of the balcony, you could straight down at people ordering at the bar. So Teddy tells us about ordering a drink while watching his friend nail a girl from behind against the balcony railing.

Teddy is, of course, acting this out as she tells it.

ROGER (V.O.): He told us about shooting holes in the bathroom floor with his shotgun because the toilets had clogged up and no plumber could get out to fix it until the following Monday.

Teddy acts this out, too.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Present Day.

ANNA: And then he tells us…about his trip to Vegas.

ROGER: Oh god, the eye.

ANNA: Yep.

BEN: What’s the eye?

ANNA: (to Roger) Do you want to tell this one?

ROGER: Oh no, this one’s all yours.

ANNA: So Teddy went to Vegas. He gets to the casino, things start off great. Everything’s falling his way, casino comps his room, comps his meal - he’s on top of the world. Little later that night, he goes into the casino bar, sees this BEAUTIFUL woman sitting alone. Way he figures, everything else is coming up Teddy, so why not this? Goes over, sits down, starts talking to her. And it works! He’s making her laugh, they’re buying each other drinks, she’s not talking in code so he’s reasonably sure she’s not a prostitute. Then, in the middle of laughing, she gets a little hiccup and her head shakes suddenly - and her eye flies out. Her glass eye. Teddy catches it, he washes it off, she does whatever she has to do and puts it back in. They keep talking, keep laughing, and eventually they go up to his room.

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Back to Teddy, acting this out as he tells it.

ANNA (V.O.): And they get down and dirty. I mean, Teddy admits he’s kind of a freak in the bedroom, and she kept up with him. Hours, this goes on. Finally, they’re laying there, spent. Teddy looks over and says “I don’t know what I did to get you, but damn I’m glad I did it.” Woman looks back at him, smiles, shrugs, and says-

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back to present day.

ANNA: “You caught my eye.”

A moment as the punchline lands.

ROGER: And then you laughed.

ANNA: And then I laughed.

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Teddy has a shit-eating grin on his face, watching Anna almost fall off her stool laughing.

ANNA (V.O.): Spent the rest of the night listening to him tell jokes and stories, and completely forgot we were fighting. Sometimes you just need a distraction. That’s when we knew this was our bar.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Anna takes a drink as she watches everyone laugh. As laughter subsides, eyes go to Ben.

BEN: I don’t want to follow those, mine’s too obvious.

ROGER: Kevin, you go next.

KEVIN: No, I’m going last.

PAUL: Dude, it’s Ben’s Bachelor Party. Let him go last.

KEVIN: No.

ROGER: Why not?

KEVIN: Because my story’s going to be better than his.

The others start to protest, then realize he’s probably right. Eyes go back to Ben.

Defeated, Ben takes a drink and gets to it.

BEN: It was a normal night…

INT. BAR - PAST

Ben sits alone at the bar. His attention is on something we don’t see yet.

BEN (V.O.): …except there was this girl.

We now see the girl on the opposite end of the bar, and damn is she a looker.

BEN (V.O.) (CONT’D): Most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. The kind of beautiful you have to take in bit-by-bit. Her eyes. Her hands. The way her hair falls. The way her neck and jawline meet. I noticed the angle of her nose, and then realized I had never noticed a nose before.

We have focused on each feature, but now return to Ben.

BEN (V.O.) (CONT’D): I know she claims she did, but she never caught me staring - Nick did.

The bartender, Nick, sees what’s happening clear as day. We wheels turning, then a slight smile as Nick gets Ben’s attention and waves him over to the girl’s side of the bar.

BEN (V.O.) (CONT’D): He motions me over to sit on the stool next to her, then leans in and beckons her to join us in our huddle.

Curiosity wins out and she leans in.

BEN (V.O.) (CONT’D): Nick looks at the two of us says “I’m sick of those assholes over there. Wanna clear ‘em out?” I say sure and he puts a five-dollar bill on the bar, then looks at her and says “You’ve gotta see this. Dude has a talent, can clear any bar, any time.”

Her eyes go from the Five to Nick to Ben. She’s not sure what to make of this, but her curiosity is even more piqued.

Ben and the girl stand at the jukebox, cycling through their options. Fiona Apple - Never Is A Promise; A Fine Frenzy - Almost Lover; REM - Everybody Hurts

BEN (V.O.) (CONT’D): She and I put the Five in, and proceed to play the most depressing stuff we can find. And we hit Next Play on every one, so they couldn’t be interrupted. Then we sat back to watch the assholes crumble. But very little in this world will bond you as quickly as having a common foe. By the time “Everybody Hurts” played, we didn’t even notice them leave.

We see them leave in the background. They don’t look pleased. Not that it matters, Ben and the girl are in their own world.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back at the table.

BEN: So yeah, I wouldn’t have met my future wife if Nick hadn’t stepped in and broken the ice.

ANNA: (to Kevin) How are you gonna top a sweet story like that?

KEVIN: Pshaw.

He takes a drink, then swiftly points to the bar.

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Kevin sits alone at the bar, nursing a drink.

KEVIN (V.O.): Three years ago, my birthday. I told everyone I’d be here, and not a single one of my friends showed up.

We now see Anna and Roger at the other end of the bar.

KEVIN (V.O.) (CONT’D): But you were there.

The three of them start conversing, and soon they’re all sitting together.

KEVIN (V.O.) (CONT’D): And we’ve been friends ever since.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back to the table. Kevin’s focus shifts to Ben.

KEVIN: Two years ago, October 25.

INT. BAR - DAY

The bar is full of people in black and orange, Cincinnati Bengals colors. Their attention is on the TV, and the spirits are HIGH.

Kevin practically jumps up and down as he watches the TV.

KEVIN (V.O.): Bengals are putting a fucking HURT on the Bears, just putting on a clinic. We’re all sitting around getting drunk and losing our minds watching this.

Kevin looks away from the TV for a moment, and something catches his eye. He turns his body to another TV, and whatever he sees only enhances his euphoria.

KEVIN (V.O.) (CONT’D): Then I see it - the Raiders are beating the Steelers.I grab the first person I see-

Which is Ben.

KEVIN (V.O.) (CONT’D):  -and I scream “Fuck The Steelers!” And then you screamed “Fuck The Steelers!” And then the whole damn bar joined in.

The whole damn bar chants “Fuck The Steelers!”

Looking at Kevin, it’s arguable that no one has ever been as happy as he in in that moment.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back at the table. Kevin’s focus now falls to Paul.

KEVIN: Five years ago, a random Tuesday night.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Paul enters and takes a seat at the bar. This looks pretty familiar.

KEVIN (V.O.): You walk in looking like you just watched the universe kick your dog to death. Looking like a man who just needs something to go his way - like maybe a free drink.

We now see Kevin is the bartender that bought Paul that drink. We see Paul’s grateful smile again. Then we see Kevin, and the satisfaction that smile gave him.

INT. BAR - EVENING

Back to the table.

KEVIN: I’ve been drinking in bars since I was sixteen years old. When you’re young, you’re there for the alcohol. But you get older and you realize the soul of the bar is its community. The bar is a place you can go and just be yourself, because the bar knows you better than you know yourself. The bar is at once private and public - you can drink alone or you can drink with friends. Happy drunk, sad drunk, good drunk, bad drunk, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, all are welcome in the bar. It is a magical place that is always there for you, and is always what you need.

Kevin stands up and raises his glass.

KEVIN (CONT’D): A toast! Ben, may you find in marriage, the love and acceptance you’ll always find in the bar.

Everyone toasts and drinks.

The End.

Spring Cleaning (Because it’s February but it feels like Spring, which in no way means the world is ending…)

As you may or may not have noticed, I’ve recently deleted a host of material from this blog. I did this because there were a lot of broken images and links, and it just looked rather shoddy. And I respect the internet too much to leave it like that. It’s like Gandhi said, “Be the webpage you wish to see.”

I hope to have everything back up soon, as well as some new stuff in the coming days/weeks/months. In the meantime, sleep well and be mighty.

—Adam

Top Ten of 2010 - Black Swan

My friend Corrie has a blog (http://soupruary.blogspot.com/) wherein every February she makes a different soup each night. Now, I don’t care about food. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fuel, a means to an end. For me, the best part of a meal is what’s not on the dish – it’s the friends I’m eating with, or the book I’m reading. I know that some food tastes good and some food tastes bad, and that’s pretty much all I know. Oh, and apparently some of it is seasonal. But Corrie’s blog is funny and engaging and not-too-wonky, even someone like me can follow as she lays out the preparation of the various dishes. I guess other food blogs are more professional or whatever, but I like Corrie’s voice. Art is subjective, shut up.

Another thing I don’t care about is ballet. My sister used to take classes, and apparently it’s really difficult, but none of that held my interest. I guess it’s kind of pretty, but mostly it always looked like a bunch of people jumping around and spinning. To quote The Simpsons, “This is better than the movies, how?” But I do care about Darren Aronofsky, and more often than not Natalie Portman, so when I heard about Black Swan, I got EXCITED. If you remember the Scott Pilgrim review, this is the other movie I spent months anticipating that totally lived up to expectations. I mean, I knew it was a ballet movie, but I didn’t know how central to the piece ballet would be. Would it be the main thrust, or more of a context in which the story could play out?

And the answer is – both! Just like nerds of every ilk, ballet is, to borrow a phrase, the alpha and the omega to the ballerina. It is why they wake up in the morning. It is why they sacrifice having an ostensibly functional life. For people with an artistic calling or a creative drive, there is no Plan B. And if you have a shot at doing something truly transcendent, even if it means taking YEARS off your life, you don’t even consider not trying for it. Yes, you know you will probably be the agent of your own demise. No, you do not care. Because ballet is not just within you, but it’s also this massive world of beauty and power to which you aspire to belong. To know that you exist in a context with these amazing artists who have touched your life and made you feel less alone when the other kids didn’t get what you were doing, and to know that maybe one day you can do that for someone else.

Darren Aronofsky makes me feel less alone in the world. Most people say they only need to see his movies once, that to subject themselves to the film again would be torture. Maybe I’m weird (maybe!), but that’s what I like about them. They’re visceral and atmospheric, a fully-realized world and a story you live alongside the characters. Their pain is your pain, their joy is your joy. And when Nina stretches out at the end of the day…shivers! But that’s what he’s interested in. It’s easy to tell a story about people in moments when they hope everyone is watching – people being heroic, or falling in love, or being really smart and solving a mystery. But to show us in those moments when we think/hope no one is watching, those quiet, human moments when we’re alone with our fears and our flaws and our…selves. Charlie Kaufman once said that a film is static, that it doesn’t change. His ambition is always to make a film that at least seems to change, once you know the full context. This is one approach. Aronofsky’s approach, similar to that of Lars von Trier, methinks, is to try to change you, the viewer. To change your mindset, your perception. To make you identify with people you never thought you would identify with, such as drug addicts and professional wrestlers, by highlighting what is truly universal among us: our dueling capacities for kindness and cruelty, and our drive to be valued and appreciated.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a manifestation of that. Dancing isn’t just what she knows, it’s all she is. Every detail of her life, from her cell phone to her bedroom to her vocabulary, shows her to be a person of supremely arrested development. The counterpoint to Ree from Winter’s Bone, Nina is a little girl who has never had to grow up, forever sheltered by her mother, or her company, or whoever else thought they could stand to gain something by keeping her blinders on. It’s like when you’re in love with someone who doesn’t love you. You want to blot out the world so that you are all they see, because sometimes being the only option is the closest you’ll get to being their best option. Could Nina have a fuller life if she would widen her gaze, take a look around her, and open herself up to new experiences? Absolutely. But would she have a better life? I don’t think so. It’s sad to say, but some of us are just not long for this world – it’s a sad truth that the brighter something burns, the quicker it burns out. Nina wanted perfection, and nothing else would do. And through the collaboration of Portman and Aronofsky and Libatique and Mansell and everybody who worked on this film, Nina touched God. And just like Icarus…

So it is that my favorite film of 2010 was about a ballerina. Didn’t see that coming. Maybe after he’s done with the Wolverine movie (yes, that Wolverine), he’ll make a movie about food and give me what-for all over again. Maybe we can get him to adapt Corrie’s blog – that would be AMAZING!!!

Top Ten of 2010 - Blue Valentine

Typically, I don’t get a lot of inspiration from great movies. I usually just think “Wow, that was a great movie. I’m so glad they made it so I can just sit back and enjoy it.” I get a lot more from bad movies, and not the epic bad movies like Manos or Plan 9 From Outer Space. More the unremarkable movies like Katherine Heigl makes – movies where it’s all contrivances and no one acts or speaks like a real person. It’s inauthentic and stupid and cartoonish in the worst possible way. I see these and I get angry because “No! No! No! That’s not how it would go!” and I sit down and I write how it would go, as per my worldview.

But almost every year, there seems to be at least one certifiably great movie that I wish I had done - one that completely suits my worldview and my ambitions as a storyteller. I think I’m going to call them the Synecdoche’s, and if you don’t know why, well you either don’t know me or you haven’t seen that film. This year’s Synecdoche is Blue Valentine.

Usually, when someone is telling a story, they’re very beholden to a particular side of that story. Not that they entirely short one character or side, it’s just very slanted more often than not. In the case of Blue Valentine, it does so many things that I love, and it does them all SO INCREDIBLY WELL. For instance, I’ve always loved how the Coen Brothers are really great at showing cause-and-effect, and Blue Valentine is a cause-and-effect tale of the dissolution of a relationship. Co-writers Derek Cianfrance (also directed), Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis took great pains to make sure that both characters, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), are clearly painted. You see, in great detail, how each character arrived at this point – the heartbreaks and perceptions and ideals and everything that brought them together, and how those same things will tear them apart. Dean’s passion and the ferocity of his commitment are constants. From the moment he saw her until now (and probably for a long time after the credits), Dean will crave Cindy. Her presence, her scent, her voice, her perspective, her warmth, her laugh, the absence of these things will eat at Dean for a long time, if not forever. He loves greatly and absolutely, like a child. Cindy, on the other hand, is more pragmatic. She needs a plan, even though she loves the romantic idea of living without one. But, she understands that reality supersedes romantic ideals. They have a kid, a house, bills, jobs, practical concerns that do not take a day off just because you feel like this would be a good day to run off and be a young couple again. And when one partner eschews reality as consistently as Dean does, it leaves the other to bear the burden even more.

I’m not sure I like what it says about me that I so identify with Dean. In a film of great scenes, one in particular stands out: The Future Room. Dean and Cindy have gone to one of those themed-room hotels that promise escape and romance, except Cindy really wasn’t fond of this idea. They end up on the floor, and in an effort to curb a fight, Dean goes down on Cindy. She doesn’t want this. She wants to feel as attacked physically as she does emotionally. She tells him this, to which Dean yells “You want me to rape you? Is that what you want?” He tries to accommodate her, but dammit man, this is his wife and mother of his child. This is the love of his life! He can’t rape her. Sex is making love – it’s tender and loving and beautiful! (Eyes Wide Shut broached this subject too, just nowhere near as well – and I say that as someone who likes Eyes Wide Shut.) Unable to give her what she wants, he pleads with her to take what he can give. To let him love her the way he wants to and knows how. There’s no violence in Dean (does anyone remember The Believer? Damn, this Gosling kid can act…), and frankly that’s his problem. His passivity has lead him to accept what he can get, and love it completely. He paints houses – at least it’s a job! He has a wife and child – isn’t that the goal?!? There’s no need for progress, because he’s already at the end as he sees it. It’s just that Cindy sees a different end.

The problem with most movies, as I see it, is that it’s usually making mountains out of molehills because we’re either afraid that the audience won’t follow us to place with real, honest emotional stakes, or we as artists don’t want to go to that place. To show a couple coming apart, most films would offer up some contrivance like samurai swords or one of the people talking to an old ex, and make this an insurmountable thing, when it’s really just a conversation. In screenwriting, they tell you that your first act informs your third act, that you have to set up your ending from the very start. This is the same as life, the thing that dooms you is already there. As is so often said, it’s just a matter of finding someone whose damage complements your own.

A friend of mine told me about this tradition (he said it’s Irish, but there’s no way the Catholic Church would condone this), wherein a married couple sits down every so many years and takes stock of themselves, both as a couple and as individuals. This is to see if they’re still right for each other. When I first heard this, I thought “Shit, that’s just asking for trouble!” But the more time I spend with it, the more I love the idea. I mean, what incredible emotional honesty it takes to look at your partner, the person you love, and accept that maybe you aren’t right for each other anymore. Even if you still feel they’re right for you, to admit that you might not be right for them. That’s incredible to me.

I get that people go to movies to be entertained or for some degree of escape. I was supposed to go out drinking with some friends the night I saw this movie, and I had to bail on those plans and come home to quietly reflect on what I’d just seen. I LOVE movies that do that. I love movies that pin me under a rock and makes me examine a part of myself and the world in general. This is the amazing thing about art. I like fun movies, I don’t need every movie to be an emotional wrecking ball – but this is the high-water mark of what we can achieve. This is possible. This is what I want to do.

Top Ten of 2010 - Exit Through the Gift Shop / Catfish

People got all up-in-arms that these two movies might not be nonfiction in the strictest sense. WHO CARES??? They might not be true stories, but they’re both true storytelling. In an era where so many people have this crushing need to Make A Movie That Matters ™, Banksy, as well as Henry Joost and Nev and Ariel Schulman, made films that spoke to where we are as a culture and how we got here, while never sacrificing accessibility and entertainment – though Banksy probably had a lot more fun.

Maybe Exit Through the Gift Shop was orchestrated. I can’t see how that takes anything away from Banksy’s point that we have commoditized creativity to a point where we respect the commoditization as the art. I mean, people geek out over seeing Perez Hilton. PEREZ HILTON! Tell me one thing that man offers as a human! But that’s what we do now, we follow the beautiful and famous in an effort to feel closer to them. We wait for that train wreck moment when we can see they’re not perfect either. Of course they’re not perfect, they’re human! We all have our hearts broken and lose jobs and make questionable decisions, celebrities just have the bone structure and good fortune to do it with everyone watching. “I’m Team Angelina!” “I’m Team Jennifer!” No, you’re both Team Useless! Liking something or identifying with something does not give you any actual sort of claim to it.

Except that’s not true, is it. I, for instance, treated the death of Robert Altman like the death of a family member. The idea that I’ll never see another Stanley Kubrick film or read another Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. novel continues to make me sad. This is what art does, it burrows in and becomes a part of you, to the point where you cannot imagine your eternal soul being uninformed by Alvy Singer and Benjamin Braddock. And it is in specificity that art becomes universal. We all have thoughts and feelings and moments where we hope no one is watching, and seeing those thoughts and feelings and moments reflected in the work of another makes us feel better because it makes us feel less alone. A shared experience in disconnected times. But as an artist, when you lose that specificity, well, you’re basically a huge, flaccid dong at that point.

Mr. Brainwash, the character that dominates the second half of Exit Through the Gift Shop, is exactly that dong. His show and his store are real things, he is a real person, and whether Banksy is just watching this strange person he met one day, or is making him a sort of living expression of his point, I don’t see how it takes away from that point. Mr. Brainwash, nee Theirry Guetta, saw people connecting to images he didn’t understand, so he created images and told people to connect to them, AND PEOPLE DID. They lined up around the block to get a crack at mass-produced “art”, a fun print they could put on their wall and feel good about themselves because it’s an ironic image with funky colors instead of that poster of two girls kissing. Much like Oasis and their plan to become the biggest band in the world by telling everyone they were the biggest band in the world, Mr. Brainwash was in the right place at the right time, and had the volition to propel himself into a place of notoriety. But that’s what happens now, in The Blog Age – everyone has a voice, and when we can’t separate the wheat from the chaff, we just say that everyone has a right to consider themselves wheat and let God sort ‘em out.

Catfish was a much more personal experience for me. Like Nev, I’ve fallen in love from afar. The way a text message from her can interject itself into a bad day and make everything seem a little better. The way a nightly phone call can come to provide comfort simply by reassuring you that no matter how bad the day has been, at the end of it she’ll be there. It is a curse of the creative mind that you can’t help but imagine a life spent together, the way their scent will evolve over the years, the expression on their face when you suggest something ridiculous for the new experience (Honey, doesn’t skydiving sound AMAZING?). You build a narrative, and you become invested. And then you go to Michigan, where narratives go to die.

But as much as I could identify with Nev and his journey, my sympathies truly rested with Angela. Here’s a woman who thought her life would be so much more than it is, but finds herself in a situation she can’t leave. I mean, that family, those are dependents in the truest sense of the word. You have a woman with an almost infinite imagination and no way to really express it in her practical life, so she goes online.

Honestly, I could break the film down and go into the controversy surrounding it, but that’s not what I’ll remember years from now. I’ll remember seeing someone who has created worlds and characters and stories into which she can escape, but because of the choices she has made in her life will never be happy in any real way. Because digital ain’t real, and someone loving the idea of you is not real love. I’ll remember Angela painting Nev, and I’ll think: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Top Ten of 2010 - Winter’s Bone

John Hawkes is a badass. Seriously, does anyone want to fight me on this? This guy has been turning in nuanced and convincing performances in a diverse array of roles for YEARS. Where Lorelei Gilmore made being a single mom look like the coolest thing a girl could be (What’s that, Precious? You disagree?), Hawkes’ performance in Me and You and Everyone We Know (a particular favorite of mine), shows every shade of hope, sorrow, and confusion that lies at the heart of Richard Swersey, a recently-divorced single father. But we’re not here to talk Me and You and Everyone We Know. We’re here to talk Winter’s Bone!

Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old Woman who sacrificed ever being a Girl so her family could survive. She lives in rural Missouri, where abject poverty is less a political concern and more an unrelenting reality. The crux of storytelling is to know your stakes, and for the Ree the stakes could not be higher. She’s got a mother who has surrendered to the fog of depression and dementia, a brother and sister not yet out of grade school, and a meth-cooking father who has R-U-N-N-O-F-T. But before he did, he put the family home and land up for bail, and now Ree has a week to find either her father, or his cash equivalent, in order to keep the roof over her family’s heads. To do this, Ree will have to confront every ne’er-do-well that ever crossed her daddy’s path, none of whom are particularly fond of answering questions posed by a girl who oughta be in school or something.

Oh, something. Something is the very heart of Ree’s journey, both its engine and its obstacles. We never meet Ree’s father, but the impression we get is not that of a particularly ambitious man. He cooked meth because those around him cooked meth, and he could do it without blowing up the lab. He was “the careful one”. He was never going to be management, but he also wasn’t going to be the one who left your house a charred reminder of what once was. Of course, that’s all anyone sees when Ree comes knocking – a reminder. These men are all chasing short-sighted goals, and their callous behavior towards Ree shows that at least a glimmer of humanity persists in them, and they damn sure wish it didn’t. We like to think we’re good people, and we really, really don’t like it when someone comes knocking at our door to confirm that we are not. Of course, Ree could not care less about any of this. Watch her when someone lights up or offers her some “smoke”; she doesn’t judge them, but she knows where this goes and refuses to let herself take that particular path.

The greatest strength in Winter’s Bone, no small compliment in a film filled with great strengths, is its sense of place. Like The White Ribbon last year, this is a film that exists on the head of a pin – if even one aspect rings false, it all comes tumbling down. Debra Granik, as director and co-writer, deserves every accolade in the book for this incredible achievement, meaning she’ll probably get an Independent Spirit Award. The same goes for Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree Dolly without a shred of vanity or ego. She’s not an angry girl, nor is she petulant about being Too Smart For This Hick Town ™. She’s simply someone who was thrust into a role, and realized there are things bigger than herself. She’s a fundamentally decent person, not the kind we often see in films these days.

But this being my review, we’re going to begin and end with John Hawkes. Here he plays Teardrop, Ree’s uncle. He’s a man of few words, because most things don’t need to be said, and that which does was said long ago, and probably not with words. Teardrop’s the kind of guy who can show up unarmed and send all the menfolk running for their weapons or their lives. He’s a skinny bastard who long ago traded the blood in his veins for ice water, the kind of guy whose stare can make you rethink every decision that has brought you to this place. Mr. Hawkes, to answer Teardrop’s question of the sheriff: Yes, this is your time.

Top Ten of 2010 - 127 Hours

Sometimes you see a movie that lifts you up and makes you feel like you’re flying, something so irrepressibly joyful that you forget your troubles and ride the euphoria. And sometimes you see a movie that hits you right where you live, that plants you in your seat and shows you a character that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to yourself. I tend to like the latter film more, as they can often provide a much needed perspective.

Aron Ralston is flying. Watching him flutter through places and lives, I thought of George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air and his philosophy that Moving Is Living. For Ralston, it goes a step farther: The Faster You Move, The Better You Live. There is no Now, only Soon. Today is never more exciting than when it is still Tomorrow, with all the promise that Tomorrow holds. Today holds no promise, just reality – a reality that Aron considers a restriction. By never standing still, he has tainted every relationship in his life, but consequences only have to be dealt with if they can catch you. Of course, we all know life has a way of forcing you to face the consequences of your decisions and actions, even if it has to drop a damn rock on you to do so.

For years I’ve been saying Danny Boyle is at the forefront of his generation of filmmakers. Though he was never credited as a writer on any film before this one, every film bore his distinct stamp. This, however, is a film that ONLY Danny Boyle could make. He’s matched perfectly in this endeavor by James Franco, whose performance as Aron Ralston stands besides Colin Firth’s Prince Albert/King George VI as towering achievements by a lead actor this year. Franco has cultivated a reputation as an unpredictable, impulsive, and passionate artist and person. Filmmaking is a uniquely collaborative art form, and Franco’s energy melds perfectly with Boyle’s, to the point it’s difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. Between the two of them, they’ve created a film that is experienced as much as, if not more than, it is viewed.

Which brings me to the moment where this film landed its punch. Like a relationship, we can’t help but bring our baggage into a film. Not a problem in those films that lift us up, and if escape is all you seek then that’s great. But as a 32-year-old man who knows what he wants in life but no clue what he’s doing right now, I watched Aron soar into a breakdown and felt myself getting poked in the clavicle (or perhaps the sternum, who knows). His realization that he has taken everyone for granted, that he is alone in a hell of his own making, well that set me up for a lovely day of reflection. But the moment when it truly transcended everything and became Something Remarkable is when he’s freed himself from the rock and made it to the surface. He sees the outline of three people walking away, and cries out “I need help!” These three strangers don’t waste a moment. They rush over and give him water and call for trained help. He is air-lifted to a hospital, and because of this, Aron Ralston is still with us today. By hook or by crook, life will get its pound of flesh.

Sometimes subtlety is for suckers.

Top Ten of 2010 - Scott Pilgrim

Honestly, most films this year disappointed me. I spent so long looking forward to the collaboration of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, but do you see The Social Network on this list? (Spoiler: You won’t.) I’ve long enjoyed David O. Russell’s work, but even with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo turning in tremendous performances (and those sisters, good lord those sisters…), The Fighter felt like it left a lot on the field. Only two films lived up to my months of anticipation, the first of which was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Just as Winter’s Bone perfectly captures rural, impoverished culture, Scott Pilgrim perfectly captures what it is to be 23-years-old. It’s not just that we’re different people from when we begin our 20s to when we leave them, we’re different people at 25 than we were at 24. Everything is immediate, everything is dramatic, every moment is deserving of hyperbole. We rocket through each year – hell, each month – with that relentless throttle of youth, the simultaneous ideas of Never Say Die and Live Fast, Die Young. Elmore Leonard once famously said that a writer should try to not write the parts a reader will skip. This is how we live our 20s, forever going from set-piece to set-piece with barely any transition.

Edgar Wright, the director and co-writer of Scott Pilgrim, takes his cue from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the creator of the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ comics, who said he conceived of the story as told from Scott’s deeply subjective perspective. In reality, no one is this clever, sexy, intimidating, etc. But who asked for reality? This is a generation who never knew an internet-less world. Who grew up thinking the digital universe is just as real as the practical one, that you are who your avatar says you are. It’s a solipsism informed by almost no reality, an insight as troubling as it is impressive. (God, I’m old.)

Another Conceit Of Youth at play here is “That which is true now, is true FOREVER”. Satisfaction that is not instantaneous is flawed. Most will credit moving past this idea to age or experience, but I believe it has more to do with honesty. We must admit that we have weaknesses, and not just in the general sense that “everyone has weaknesses, therefore I must as well” – we must get specific. We must say “I want X (the variable, not the drug), but I won’t let myself have it because I know it’s not going to help me become the person I want to be in the long run.” Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is about the beginning of that realization. Scott is beginning to understand that to love someone is to accept them with all of their weaknesses and strengths, as well as being accepted with all of yours, is the greatest high score this world has to offer. (High Score! See, I know video game culture!)

All pretentious discussion aside, this movie is also FLIPPING FUN! Seriously, I still hurt from smiling – and not in the emo way where any expression of joy is painful. Everyone is so good (especially you, Kieran Culkin!), and having so much fun, you can’t help but be beguiled. You want to spend time with these people all the time. (We do hang out with these characters all the time! They’re us, maaaaaaaaan, he says, belaboring his point.) It’s a flawlessly realized world (Oh Toronto, you mythical wonderland), with impeccably realized characters. And the title card, oh that title card! Like the smell of Mac-N-Cheese or the opening chords of ‘Once’ on Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ album (Yes, it’s a 90s band and I said “album”. I told you I’m old!), the Universal card as 8-bit image instantly transports you to a simpler time when Grand Theft Auto was still a game you had to leave your apartment to play. Also, it tells you immediately what kind of movie you’re in for – which again speaks to the skill at play here. Edgar Wright is a big, huge, massive nerd, and we are all better for it.

Personal note: I was able to meet most of the people who worked on this film, and I can say that  Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a sweet as she is pretty. Hello, new celeb crush!

Again, clearly all of my life choices have been the right ones.

Again, clearly all of my life choices have been the right ones.

See that? That’s me with a real-life Astronaut! My life choices have clearly been all correct.

See that? That’s me with a real-life Astronaut! My life choices have clearly been all correct.