They Must Be on Acid: Why “Rectify” is the Best New Drama on TV

2013 Sundance Portrait - Rectify

Once in a while a show comes along you’ve never heard of, and it just blows your doors off. The writing, acting, directing, and all the production remind you of why you might have wanted to be a writer, actor, or director in the first place. Or, if you didn’t want to be any of those things, it’s just a damn good show.

The inaugural six-episode season of Rectify aired on the Sundance Channel last year. It is the first series to be put out by the Sundance Channel and can now be viewed on Netflix. The show’s creator and writer is Ray McKinnon.

McKinnon, like the rest of the talent involved, may not be someone whose name you recognize. You’d know his face, though, if you ever watched Deadwood – that earnest preacher who was dying of consumption while he saved the souls of others in his quirky, gangly way was McKinnon. He’s also been the eccentric, obsessed, leather-clad FBI agent in Sons of Anarchy, and carried vital, supporting roles in top-notch indie films like That Evening Sun, Take Shelter, and Mud. Who knew the character actor had such a talent for writing?

Rectify has a sublimely simple premise: a man on death row for 20 years has his sentence vacated when new evidence comes to light. That evidence is DNA, proving that someone else was more likely responsible for the rape and murder of a teenage girl back when the main character was a teen himself. So the man on death row, Daniel Holden, gets let out of prison. But, “vacated” is the operative word; he’s not been exonerated. Prosecutors are revving up to re-try the case, local cops have it in for Daniel, and the small Georgia town is divided between thinking he’s innocent and still believing his guilt.

Daniel is often silent, but when he speaks – particularly when he engages other characters in a meaningful way – the writing is superb, evoking the early Darabont-written episodes of The Walking Dead, but mixed with a kind of transcendence; an almost hallucinogenic quality, as if, in certain moments, the characters were dosed with a half-tab of Lysergic acid and their spirit-minds are just firing away.

Daniel is played by Aden Young. Young is another relative unknown, yet, like McKinnon, he’s been enjoying a lengthy, successful career. The Canadian-born, forty-two year-old actor has a long list of TV movies, mini-series, indie films, and has taken turns in big budget films like Sniper and Killer Elite, but, chances are, he comes as a fresh surprise to viewers. Young brings so much to the Daniel Holden character and is an “alternative” enough actor to help suspend all disbelief. He really is Daniel Holden, a man reborn, in many ways, and suffering the terrible institutionalization of being locked in a tiny cell for two decades.

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The brilliance of the show is in its premise, but also in the handling of details. Daniel, for instance, decides he needs eye glasses in a middle episode of the short season, and goes to an optometrist. The eye doctor explains that he is mildly nearsighted, and then muddles through a nervous explanation about how being in an environment with nothing far away to look at can weaken the optic muscles. I.e., Daniel’s vision has deteriorated because he’s been staring at walls for 20 years. It’s a haunting and authentic detail.

But walls are not all Daniel has been staring at. He’s also pored over books during his incarceration. As such, he is well-spoken. That is, when he does speak, and is not lost in the moment as he pulls a feather-pillow apart to watch the feathers drift in a bar of sunlight, or sits in the grass of a baseball field and drinks a soda like a man who just arrived on the planet and has all the simple pleasures to discover, Daniel makes references to Buddhism, Confucianism, and to authors and thinkers like Nietzsche. But his power and magnetism are not in this erudition alone, rather, his state of childish wonder, blended with his suffering of such unfathomable tragedy, create inculpable empathy. His sister-in-law, played by Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, says to her husband that the extent to which Daniel has endured pain might be “even more than Job,” of the Bible.

rectify 2Rectify does not shy away from the big things in life. Instead, it is all about them. The show is ostensibly about a man released from prison to face the prosecutors and townspeople who want him put back in, but this is just the motor. The ride is Daniel’s experience. His rebirth in the world, and his deep, contemplative nature. He has in-laws who are devoutly religious, and a firecracker sister, played by Abigail Spencer, who is much more secular.

The manner with which the show embraces these central issues to a human being’s life – the here and now, the afterlife, God or His absence, and the evil that lurks – is nothing short of masterful. Few TV dramas have gotten to the heart of the human condition and the questions which matter to us the most with such subtlety, wisdom, and immaculate execution as Rectify. It is a must-see.

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End note: My wife and I have watched and enjoyed The Fall, Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Homeland, The Killing, The Walking Dead, In Treatment, The United States of Tara, and House of Cards. While these shows are all quite incomparable, they exist in our personal catalog of “good” to “really good” shows.  I’m pretty certain Rectify has taken over the number one spot for both of us. Season 2 kicks off on the Sundance Channel on June 19th.

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The Wolf of Wall Street – a review of reviews

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The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a mercurial stock broker who rose in the 1990s to become a ridiculously wealthy, drug-addled mogul of Long Island.

Wolf lays it all out in one of the first scenes, when a younger Belfort is being schooled by a reptilian, almost goofball version of Satan played by Matthew McConaughey.  They’re sitting there, on top of the world, and McConaughy explains the rules of the game:  They don’t care about making their clients any money, they only care about making themselves money.  And there is a lack of culpability, because what they’re doing, what they do for a living, it’s not really real.

Stockbroking is about speculation; a realm of phantoms.  Projecting how well a business will do, hiking up shares for that company, this epitomizes a dark failure of our money-market system.  Empires are made, lives are shattered.  McConaughey says, “The stocks go up, the stocks go down,” and none of it comes from anything real, anything of value.  It’s taking from one person to give to someone else – in this case, yourself.

Like so much else in our modern world, reactions to the film have been polarized.  The Financial Times considers the film too late-in-the-game to be poignant, saying “Been there, done that, got the Enron prison shirts.”  Meanwhile, the UK’s Daily Telegraph hails it as “Scorsese’s Best Film in 20 Years.”

Some of the films detractors say that it doesn’t take time to show us the ruined lives of the victims.  Others cite that there is not enough punishment for Belfort – the denouement is too brief and he gets off too easy.  After a long, hyper-real ride through his sordid, spectacular life, he gets a slap on the wrist.

Yet this is faithful to the book adapted for the film, written by Belfort, and told from his perspective.  And it is faithful to the realities of white collar crimes.  We may boo and hiss at the CEOs who parachute away from danger when their fraudulent behavior cripples lives, but we remain either unwittingly trapped by or fiercely loyal to our financial system and the ideology of the free marketplace which created these men in the first place.

Without question, Wolf is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in years, full of everything that makes cinema great, and easily considerable as a master work for Scorsese.  There were a couple of times I felt a slight drag (perhaps one too many self-aggrandizing speeches from Belfort), but the editing, the cinematography, the score – just manna from Scorsese heaven.

The film does not paint its moral message across the sky.  As the Telegraph observes, Scorsese grants his audience the intelligence to draw their own conclusions: “…Glamorizing without endorsing, treating the audience like adults, trusting that our moral sense will compensate for his characters’ lack of one.”

Viewers unhappy with the film consider experiencing three hours of debauchery “for nothing.”  Perhaps the hyperactivity and decadence has left them feeling a bit as though they’d gone on one of Belfort’s benders themselves.  And perhaps this is the message, or, at least, the reaction Scorsese might be looking for: That this kind of shit is wild, it’s crazy, some parts are even attractive, but it’s like working for the devil – in the end, if it doesn’t kill you, it will leave you empty.

The movie is possibly harder to take for female viewers.  Women are relentlessly objectified in Wolf.  They’re either giving blow jobs, or stripping, or sweet and understanding (like Belfort’s first wife), then dumped for the newer, younger, more gold-plated model.  I watched it with my wife, and while I roared at the scenes like Belfort pantomiming that he’s physically “giving it” to a client while he suckers him in over the phone, her reaction was a bit more subdued.  It’s a real frat party, and while I can laugh at their antics from this safe distance, enjoy an actor’s performance and a filmmaker’s skills, in real life I would probably hate these stockbroker guys, or at least want to have nothing to with them.

Yet…I can’t…look…away…

In the riveting climactic scene where Belfort’s personal life finally comes crashing down around him, the blows he gives to his wife signal us that the party is over.  He’s no longer just riding out there on the edge, he’s past it now, he’s lost in the abyss, fully in the clutches of hell.  This ramification for his life of the devil’s work is deserved.  Yet beyond this, he does little-to-no penance, since his money stretches through the bars of the jail cell, and he goes on to write a book, and then, yeah, have a movie made about him.  In some ways, he doesn’t get the punishment we’d like to think he deserves – instead he’s cashing in.

Despite dissatisfaction with either the length of the film, the bombardment to the senses, or of justice ill-fitted to financial crimes, The Wolf of Wall Street is a powerhouse movie.  It’s a cinematic gem from Scorsese.  It’s why movies are made – to take us into another experience, to provide for us a collective dream, a spectacle, to strike a nerve within us.  Wolf is a breathtaking glimpse of the imperious, ultimately joyless and carnal side to the American dream.

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Movies and Money

With Oscar Season approaching, a few decent movies can easily make us forget all of the riffraff we endured the other eleven months of the year.

Let’s reconsider the existence of these.

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When Movies Suck

When movies suck it’s often because of money. “Big” movies that bomb, a glut of sequels, the computer-animated, empty-headed extravaganzas, the crowded summer season, all point to Hollywood’s business model tanking.

And it’s because of money.

Many people will tell you that money is the way the world works.  This is not the case.  The world works like this:  The sun comes up each day, the plants give us oxygen, the bees pollinate the crops (at least until recently) and man and nature evolve together in a cooperative scheme of magnificent proportions.

Man invented money.  And that’s not “man” in the sense of “mankind.”  Women didn’t invent money.  Money translates into territory, and men are territorial.  If you don’t have much money, you might live in your car.  That’s small territory.  If you have lots of money, you might own thousands of acres of land in Costa Rica.  That’s big territory.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  The more money you have, typically, the more money you can make.  The less money you have, the harder it is to make money.  The widening socioeconomic gap is inarguable.  Some noted capitalists like Martin Friedman will say that the poor and middle class have come to enjoy a better standard of living through capitalism, but that depends on what you consider standard of living.  By increasing their debt, the poor and middle class have come to acquire more “stuff” in their lives, like TVs and cell phones on which to watch bad movies.  High conditionality loans which lead to the exploitation of natural and human resources abroad jonah-hexallow us to viddy gems like “Gigli,” but there has been no real wage increase since the 1970s, and just a few years ago there was a rash of underwater mortgages unprecedented in the housing sector, a burst bubble with spatter patterns as ugly as Jonah Hex.  I could go on and on, and talk too about the global lower class, or cleverly analogize our corrupt money-market system to various films, but that isn’t the point.

Some people will point to a cultural degradation and say that movies have diminished in quality because we are becoming a shallower, more decadent culture.  But the surface of culture reveals the socioeconomic structure of what lies beneath.

Money, and a top-heavy system of capitalism are what’s behind our culture now, influencing everything around us, including the movies.

Hey, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the model of capitalism.  Philosophically, there is an appealing side to the model – that each person be unfettered to achieve their highest self through healthy competition.  And that is self-actualization will ultimately contribute to the greater good for society.

But, as the movies show us, capitalism, without an enlightened touch, can run amuck.  Capitalism easily fosters greed.  Capitalism encourages a kind of indifference to one another – to see things in terms of “business” and not humanity, when we all are, at the end of the eight hour work day, still human.

And it seems that many of the films which have done incredibly well over the years did not germinate with a promise of big money – it was the love of storytelling, the joy of innovation itself which hatched them.

As humans, we continue to crave good stories.  We need art to remind us why we bear the suffering of life.  To remind us of the good things, too.  Otherwise, it would be just “business” out there.  Our culture craves quality storytelling just the same as any other time in human history.  We have the tools to do incredible things in the name of art and entertainment, but along comes money, and we wind up where we are now, with some good, but with bigger and bigger bad.

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10 Really Bad Investments

1. Jonah Hex (2010)  Cost: $47 million / Box Office (after 10 weeks): $16.2 million

2. Catwoman (2004)  Cost: $100 million / Box Office: $40.2 million

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3. The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)  Cost: $100 million / Box Office: $4.4 million

4. Gigli  (2003 – Ben Affleck? Jennifer Lopez?  A Marty Brest film?  What went wrong?  This stinker netted a 2.4 out of 10 stars on imdb.)  Cost: $54 million / Box Office: $6 million

ben-affleck-jennifer-lopez-gigli5. Australia (2008)  Cost: $130 million / Box Office: $49.5 million

6. Repo Men (2010)  Cost: $32 million / Box Office: $13.7 million

7. Speed Racer (2008)  Cost: $120 million / Box Office: $43.9 million

8. The Invasion (2007)  Cost: $80 million / Box Office: $15 million

nkid19. Town & Country (2001)  Cost: $90 million / Box Office: $6.7 million

10. How Do You Know (2010)  Cost: $120 million / Box Office: $30 million

Okay, so, some are just bad ideas, (Pluto Nash, Gigli, Catwoman), but some had the promise of ensemble casts of name actors (How Do You Know, Town & Country), the reputation of a successful franchise (Speed Racer, Jonah Hex, The Invasion), the formula of other successful ventures (Australia).  That these failed can only mean, well, they sucked.

And they keep the company of an increasing number of flops like them.  Too much money thrown at ideas “guaranteed” to work.  Moreover, too many ideas green-lit because of the promise of a mega-return.

What these films all have in common is that someone thought they would make a boatload of money by investing in them.  And, to be safe, and go the surefire way, the ventures were contrived to mimic successes from years past, to feature the actors who had drawn big crowds before, and to open sometime around when Jaws opened nearly 40 years ago, spawning the trend of summer releases – in the middle of July.

Money. Money-driven decisions.  Not creativity-driven decisions, but money-driven decisions.  How will we make as much as possible?

On the other hand…

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10 Really Good Investments

You could say, well, without money, we wouldn’t have the great films we have today.  Okay, let’s take a look at some of the consensus-voted “great” or at least “cult classic” films, and see about how much they cost to make, and what they took in at the box office.

1. Rocky (1976) was made for a cool million and took in 225 million at the box office.  Stallone was virtually a nobody at the time, and there are no boxing movie success stories which precede the film.  The success is arguably attributable to the story.

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2. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was produced for a little over a hundred thousand dollars.  It rakes in 30 million world-wide.  Not bad for a bunch of zombies.  Horror films were nothing new at the time, but the irreverence and gore was an innovative stab in the right direction.  Pun, I guess, intended.

3. Mad Max (1980)   Cost: $200,000 / Box Office: $100 million

4. El Mariachi (1992)  Cost: $7,000 / Box Office:  $2 million.

5. Brothers McMullen (1995) – dawn of the “independent film” (with Sex, Lies and Videotape a compatriot)  Cost: $25,000 / Box Office: $10.5 million

6. Supersize Me (2004)  Cost: $60,000 / Box Office: $29 million

7. Blair Witch Project (1999)  Cost: $35,000 / Box Office: $250 million

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8. Halloween (1978)  Cost: $320,000 / Box Office: $60 million

9. Swingers (1996)  Cost: $250,000 / Box Office: $4.5 million

10. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)  Cost: $400,000 / Box Office: $44 million

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 Happy Holidays.

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New Study Shows that Afterlife Exists, but Only for Atheists

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A study that was conducted recently cites the relationship of the Higgs-Boson particle to The Field of Dark Matter, along with other scientific mumbo jumbo, in proving the existence of the Afterlife, a place that only admits atheists into its eternal bliss, however.

“It seems that God is not without a sense of irony,” said Pastor Jim Taylor.

“We’re closing down the synagogue,” said Rabbi Benjamin Seidenstein, “and going to Starbucks next Saturday instead of Temple.”

For millennia, people of Earth have believed in some form of god – Yaweh, Allah, Zoroaster, The Moon, Obama, and others.  In most cases, the religion ascribed to that god has involved a type of afterlife – a place human souls depart to upon mortal death (and usually only upon some form of spiritual expiation) that is paved with golden streets overrun with solicitous virgins working the corners.

The study, conducted by scientists around the globe, in part at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, as well as on the Russian Space Station, Mir, and at the Hubble Space Telescope, represents the largest coordinated scientific effort to date, and a lot of things to say in one sentence.

Using the Hubble telescope, researchers peered deep into Space, while scientists at CERN smashed atoms together in the Hadron Collider; they were looking in the other direction – into the inner space of the tiniest observable particulate matter – the neutrino.

“The neutrino tells us quite a story,” said Swiss scientist Werner Mathis in a silly Swiss-German accent which made him hard to understand.  “Trillions of these tiny particles are passing through you, me, that chair over there, right this very instant.  So, we ask ourselves the question: where do they go?  And so, we followed them.”

Coordinating with Mir and the Hubble Telescope was no easy feat.  Astronomer Guy Wannaker said, “We were texting constantly.  My phone was totally blowing up.”

The location of a group of 3.3 trillion neutrinos was tracked by a mathematician named Orgo Maddox.  Electromagnetically “tagged” by Maddox, Mir Space station did the initial tracking of the herd of neutrinos as they left the atmosphere while feeding the coordinates to Wannaker.

“Though I don’t know that ‘herd,’ is the right term for this group of neutrinos,” Wannaker said.  “I like that you can call a group of crows a ‘murder’ of crows.  And then there’s an ‘unkindness’ of ravens – that’s really cool.  In Australia they have kangaroos, right?  And they say, a ‘mob of kangaroos.’  That’s kind of great; it makes the kangaroos seem like they might be carrying weapons, like bats or tommy guns.  Can you imagine that? Kangaroos with bats and tommy guns.”

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Wannaker was able to effectively “watch” the neutrinos as they traveled 42 light years into Outer Space, passing the beautiful horsehead nebulae, and making a left turn at the farthest observable extrasolar planet, and continuing on from there.

“And that’s where I found the afterlife, and that’s where I saw them.”

Wannaker became emotional telling the story.  “T.H. Huxley, Nietzsche, Max Stirner, uhm, other noteworthy dead atheists – they were all right there.  It was wild; it was like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I felt like that guy in the space helmet with all those colors coming at him.  Man, he looked really fucking freaked out, didn’t he?”

afterlife choicesThe discovery of the afterlife in the deep cosmos did not turn up any believers, Wannaker said.  “You know, you expect to see Mother Theresa there.  Martin Luther King, Jr. …I just couldn’t make sense of it.”

“When you look that far back into Space,” explained Wannaker after he had settled himself down with a few cocktails, “You’re looking back in time.  We essentially looked into the beginning of the universe – that’s where the neutrinos had returned.”

Baffled by his findings, and half-drunk from tee many martoonies, Wannaker made a phone call.

He called Pastor Jim Taylor.

Taylor explained that the afterlife has no time; that it is the beginning and the end of all life.

“It’s weird, you know?  We’ve got proof that the afterlife exists, but you can’t believe in it if you want to get there.  It’s like one of those Chinese finger torture things.  Well, no, I guess it’s not like that.  But it shows us that God is even more mysterious than we first thought.”

Asked whether he would continue his practice as a pastor, Taylor said, “I would stop believing in a heartbeat and become an atheist, but, I just can’t.  I make $28,000 a year as a pastor, and my family needs the money.  Anyway, this cosmic geography where the afterlife was discovered is arbitrary.  I bet science will show us next that rank-and-file believers, you know, Christmas Eve Christians and people with one foot out the door, they’ll show up as having a place in the afterlife, too.  And it will go on from there.  That’s the thing with science, it’s like watching House of Cards or something – you just got to stick around to find out what happens next.”

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Movies Are Cannibals: An Epic List of Sci-Fi Goodies, Some Original, Some Not

Movies are cannibals.  Let me give you an example.  One of the best sci-fi films of all time is arguably Alien (1979).  One of the Alien writer-creators is Dan O’Bannon.  Dan O’Bannon worked on Dark Star with John Carpenter, and in Dark Star there was the monster-in-the-ventilation-system sequence which would germinate into O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset’s Alien script.  And Dark Star itself was a loose parody of the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

All sci-fi movie back-roads lead to 2001.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) GARY LOCKWOOD TTO 016FOH

Okay not really.  But the majority of movies we know and love were derived from some other movie, or book, either directly adapted from, overtly inspired by, or unconsciously motivated from.  Or, straight up cannibalized.

I’m going to take my top 30 sci-fi movies and put this to the test.  First, a disclaimer: I’m excluding anything prior to 1968, which was the year of A Space Odyssey.  Second, I’m not going to include any Star Wars or Star Trek films.  Whether they may have ranked on my list or not is probably irrelevant here; it is because they too have spawned so much, as 2001 has, and almost belong in their own category.  Third, I won’t pretend to know what “unconsciously motivated” a writer or not, and we can assume that while the collective consciousness informs us all, but doesn’t count as source material.

In this list, I’ll wager that I can concretely show something borrowed or sourced in at least 2/3 of these films – or 20 of them.

Let’s see.

30. Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus was a breath of fresh air.  A group of scientists and explorers on a distant planet investigating an alien intelligence we hadn’t seen since…well, Aliens.  Which is the lore this film comes from, ostensibly a prequel or “origin story” for the quartet of “Alien” films which have left the sci-fi genre with their indelible stamp.

29.  The Fly (1986)

I love this movie.  I’m normally put off by the grotesque, and David Cronenberg likes to lay on the goo.  But this film moves like a play, and has a pitch-perfect tempo and such a heart-rending denouement that it haunts me to this day.  The film, though, is a reboot of a 1958 horror/sci-fi flick of the same name.  So that’s two sourced films so far.  (I promise I won’t keep counting though.)

28. Dark City (1998)

Popular Mechanics said that this movie was “Plato’s cave allegory meets Detective Comics.”  It was a comic book before it was a movie and the comic story, like so many stories, is a version of a man coming to greater understanding of the realities which emerge as he does, from his limited perspective.  Some academic types observe that all stories spring from one well: A character journeys into the unknown.  I like this movie for its tone, costuming, and sinister nature – and yes, I took the journey.

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27.  The Thing (1982)

The Thing is another goo-fest.  It oozes with waxy monster bits and things growing and popping out of people.  It is a reboot of the 1951 film, The Thing From Another World.  (And it was rebooted again in 2011).  The Thing satisfies in a suspenseful way, and has one of the best endings – and I mean the very last minute – of any sci-fi film I’ve seen.

26.  Inception (2010)

Inception was tedious, but ambitious.  In its attempt to be mind-blowing, it had an analgesic effect.  I spent 45 minutes wondering when the movie was going to get started, since all any of the characters seemed to be doing was talking about what was going to happen when it would eventually happen.  Yet Inception contains the kind of movie moments that can’t be denied – that sense of God Moving over the Face of the Waters – streets and buildings peeling away from the earth, zero-gravity fights, and a tremendous orchestral score that vibrates the rib cage.  And even though I felt like I had seen it before, through the lenses of The Matrix, Minority Report, and Momento, I will mark Inception as Original.  Maybe because the characters talked so damned much they convinced me of something unique.

25. Vanilla Sky (2001)

This film took all kinds of guff from critics and viewers.  For some reason, I found it utterly spellbinding.  The journey through the many layers of reality was mesmerizing – another cave allegory, perhaps, but this felt more like a free fall.  I fell for it all.  And I had no idea, until later, that this movie I thought to be one-of-a-kind was a remake of Abre Los Ojos, a Spanish film.

24.  Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall has been remade, as we all know.  The 1990 version starring Arnie was a fantastic ride, and thanks to a story by Philip K. Dick.  This is only the first film we’ll see on this list inspired by Mister Dick’s incredible imaginings.

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23. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Not totally my taste, but an undeniable masterpiece in its own right.  This controversial film comes from a book by Anthony Burgess.  A book, no less, Burgess once said he considered to be one of his “lesser works.”  Not bad for phoning one in.

22. The Truman Show (1998)

Kind of weird to see this in a sci-fi list? I thought so too, when I first saw it in a top 100.  Yet it is listed in most databases as a sci-fi flick (though also a comedy and a drama).  This genre-bending film utterly engrosses under crystalline direction from Peter Weir.  It is an original screenplay, written by Gattaca writer-director Andrew Niccol, and, as far as I can tell, truly the first of a kind.  Yes, we’ve seen other films about reality TV, like The Running Man (arguably prophetic at its time) but this unknowing subject at the center of it all really gives The Truman Show its distinctive mojo.  Most game show or reality show movies feature fully-apprised protagonists, but here our hero tumbles down the hole toward enlightenment.  I’ll score it original, universal themes notwithstanding.  So remarkable is this film that its title has been co-opted by the world of psychiatry – The Truman Show Disorder refers to people who have a persistent delusion that they are on a 24/7 reality show.

21.  Mad Max (1979)

“A western seen through the lens of post-apocalyptic Australia.” – Popular Mechanics

A western?  Really? Yeah, totally.  I can see that.  Mad Max is a Pale Rider.  The reluctant Stranger who helps out the vulnerable village folk.   A great movie, a trendsetter, a legend, but, no, not totally original.  Cribbed from Clint Eastwood films and sci-fi predecessors like Outland.

20. 12 Monkeys (1995)

What could be more original than Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in an insane asylum together? And one of them is a time traveler and the other is the red herring we will come to believe started the end of the world in motion?  Nothing, it would seem, could be more fresh and new.  Yet, 12 Moneys was based on the eccentric artist and documentarian Chris Marker’s short film of still photographs, La Jetee.  Marker wrote the 12 Monkeys script based on his 1962 experimental film.

19. Contact (1997)

Contact does what sci-fi movies do best – transport you into a new world.  Yes, as we’re observing, it’s all about journeying into the unknown.  But there’s a difference in being in on a truth the protagonist is not (The Truman Show) or unraveling a mystery through clues and flashbacks (12 Monkeys) and rocketing through space and time to another world.

When we get there, Contact may feel like it cheats us a little.  (Spoilers ahead!) The aliens use Ellie’s own mind to construct the world she encounters, but the personal journey this takes her on proves to carry us in to an even more special place – a dramatic irony in which the brilliant atheist we have come to know and love faces the challenge of convincing others of something they just couldn’t possibly accept without proof.  For which she has none.

The film is based on Carl Sagan’s book, so cannot get the “original” stamp (though the book sure does…painstaking though I may have found it to read).

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18. The Terminator (1984)

So archetypal.  So simple, and yet so smart.  Total grindhouse, and yet somehow sparing.  The Terminator is the first of a kind.  Our fear of the wave of technology capsizing our fragile organic civilization, manifested as a relentless, man-eating cyborg.  Original.

17.  The Terminator 2 (1992)

One of those rare instances where a sequel has actually improved on its prequel.  T2 is great action sci-fi, from bones to liquid metal, but it doesn’t get the originality vote, since, you know…  He came back.

16. Blade Runner (1982)

I know. You’re shaking your head. How the hell could I have placed this film in anywhere but the top 10?  Don’t get me wrong.  Blade Runner is awesome.  There’s a muddled area for me in the Blade Runner legacy though – that of the discrepancies between all the different versions of the film.  There are some with explanatory voice-overs, some with unicorns, and some with happy endings.  All that aside, one of those – the approved director’s cut, I think – is totally bad ass.  So much so that it never has to explain why replicant-terminating future cops are called “Blade Runners.” It is sufficient, I guess, that such a moniker sounds unassailably cool.  Anyway, the film is based on a story by Philip K. Dick.

15.  2001: A Space Odyssey  (1968)

Wow.  Another whack upside the head.  What self-respecting list wouldn’t have this film at the tippy top?  This film is a work of art, a masterpiece, a golden goose – the basis for this whole particular list in the first place – it is one of the great films of all time, sci-fi or not…but it is also old.  Whereas Gattaca, for instance, doesn’t date itself, letting it stand outside the march of time, I hate to break it to everyone, but we’ve passed 2001 in real life.  If I lived in 1968, this would be number one, the best movie I have ever seen.  But this crown jewel of a flick – nay, the crown itself – just reeks of the 1960s, at least for the first half.  The Jetsons furniture, the civilian clothing, and the understandable inability to actually see too far into what the future will actually look like, while this film still represents absolute craftsmanship, we have to move on.  From the book by Arthur C. Clarke.

14.  Minority Report (2002)

Such a ride.  From start to finish, a smart, engrossing, totally thrilling ride.  One of those few Cruise movies where Tom himself isn’t somewhat of an annoyance.  Spielberg is at his best too – those clicking spiders are just Gremlins in the age of cyborgs.  The beauty is, those clicking spiders aren’t the only gimmick – this film is so packed with ideas and nods at technology and society that it borders on encyclopedic.  Only possible from the mind of Philip K. Dick, who wrote the story the film is based on.  That’s three for Dick.

13. Sunshine (2007)

I swear nobody saw this movie.  Nobody talked about it, nobody told me to go see it, nothing.  I think I found it by accident.  What a sweet surprise.  There is nothing director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland can’t do as a team.   (The Beach, 28 Days Later.)  This film stands alone, executed with a style and story which I have not seen before nor since.  Original.

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12.  District 9 (2009)

I remember being disappointed when first watching this film and realizing its documentary-style aesthetic.  I’d had high hopes, and felt let down – how can anything be epic, how can it have true, transcendent movie moments when it is this hand-held, fake documentary thing?  I’m so glad I was proven to be a complete idiot (which happens a lot).  The film turned out to be a gem, and did, in fact, have moments which had me leaving my body and lost in its greatness.  Like that fight with the guy in the robot suit which he can use because he is turning into an alien.  Oh man.  Original.

11. Moon (2010)

Only better than District 9 because of how infinitely watchable Sam Rockwell is.  Duncan Jones “little” film does what many of its big-budget counterparts have aspired to do, and failed – it brings you into a world you are convinced of.  The moonscape and the “cosmic” bits of the story, then, become like another character in themselves, and not something we’re constantly told to marvel at.  Duncan wrote this for Sam Rockwell.  Original.

10. Aliens (1986)

Classic.  Wonderful.  Everything about this movie is entertaining.  The scenes are tight, everyone and everything on edge, plunging inexorably toward the lair of the beast, quipping smartass lines and shooting everything in sight along the way.  Double-back-for-a-friend suspense, incredibly convincing effects and sets; just a pure juggernaut of an epic film. No wonder Cameron has an ego.  He made this shit.

*Ahem* However, sourced by another film (which will appear shortly here).  Thus, not original.

9. Robocop (1987)

I saw this film as a twelve year-old boy in the theatre.  I pretended I was Robocop afterwards, as my father and I walked through aisles of clothing in a retail store near the theatre.  I had to be Robocop. I couldn’t let it go.

I watched the film several times over the ensuing years.  The power of it never faded. My peptides gushed in all the same spots – the brutal gunning down of Peter Weller, the first time Robocop walks into the precinct, the shot of him driving the cop car into downtown Detroit, and the nasty guy whose face gets all melty because he fell into toxic waste, and so on.  Fantastic movie.  One of a kind.  Original.  (Too bad about the horrible sequels – let’s see what the remake has in store.)

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8. Predator (1987)

Totally in league with Robocop.  Great, simple, archetypal story.  Same release year.  Same age, me – totally blown away.  There are fewer things to say about the truly good films.  They just work.  It’s not hard for me to separate out the teen love affair with these flicks, either.  I have watched them again as a grown man and see the glory in them, still.  Predator is just a mean film, man.  Totally, gut-wrenchingly good. Who gives a shit about the implausible ending?  By then you are just carved out of wood, a quivering mass of muscle ready to take on the alien invasion yourself.  Totally awesome story.  Original.

7. The Fountain (2006)

Okay, now for the softer side.  The Fountain is one of the more underrated films of the genre, and yet totally spectacular.  It can’t get marked original because it draws on historical events, and other depictions of said historical events.  However, in every way this is a landmark film, with great nuance and depth.  It harkens Terrence Malick’s work in the way the sphere surrounding the tree of life drifts up into the heavens.  This sphere is our watchdog – our time constraint.  Where it is headed recalls that great film, 2001, in that what the film does is totally judicious and mature – it leads us into this experience, and then lets us have it.  It does not overly define it, or dumb it down, but gives us an approximation of form.  It is the mystic in a foreign land bestowing the visitor a talisman to behold, and granting him the intelligence to parse its deep meaning.

6.  Jurassic Park (1992)

I saw this film as a freshman in college at the campus theatre.  I don’t remember what I expected, but I remember what I experienced – I truly lost sense of myself when the T-Rex came over the damn fence, man.  No music, nothing cluttering up the moment, just the squish of that thing’s massive toes in the mud, the guttural trumpet of its growl, the rain pounding down.  This is Spielberg at his best, reaching in and seizing the child in all of us and saying “look.”  Any of the film’s campiness or fairy-tale goofery is made up for, and then some, in the light of this benevolent act: Spielberg made the dinosaurs real at last, so the rest of us didn’t have to.  From the book of the same name, by Michael Crichton.

5.  Children of Men (2006)

Everything you could want in a movie that shows you the future of society is here in Children of Men.  Yet it is completely unfettered; astonishingly “clean” despite the dirty world it dwells in.  The scenes are individual works of art – some of them long as the day, pulling you out of yourself with this tractive force.  In the maelstrom of societal collapse, one plight rings out above all others – the sudden inability for man to procreate.  Makes everything else pale in comparison.   Based on the book by P.D. James, it took five screenwriters to haul this out of the literary mire and paint pictures with it.

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4.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This film came out the same year as Star Wars?  Totally.  What a year for movies.

Spielberg does something Lucas doesn’t – he creates characters that look and sound and act like people.  Amazing.  One of the ways he achieves this is often by having more than one person speaking at the same time in a scene.  Astonishing.  More than one person speaking at a time, you say??  Yes, people do it, apparently.  Check out the scene where the UFOs are first spotted by a radar control tower.  The reactions by the guys with their headsets on is just some of the best filmmaking you’ll ever see in your life.  There is so much to say about this movie, books have been written on it.  I’ll just sum it up with “original.”

3.  Donnie Darko (2001)

Another film that doesn’t seem to like the sci-fi jacket, and tries to squirm out.  Donnie Darko is in its own class.  There is nothing else quite like it.  And nothing ever has seized me in the same way that seeing the metal bunny standing in the front yard.  Sometimes the absurd dredges up the things in our own unconscious – which scare us, or at least make us pay attention – more than any contrivance.  This film is genius.  It was best left alone before the director’s cut came out and tried to foolishly explain everything.  I extoll its virtues here as the original theatrical version, a movie I didn’t actually see in the theatre but grabbed off the video store shelf one night with a shrug.  I had no idea my world would change forever.  Original.

2.  Alien (1979)

As referenced during the introduction of this list, Ridley Scott’s Alien borrowed some ideas from another film.  But does that really make it “unoriginal?”  As I get to the end of this list, I realize just how vast the grey area is.  At the time of the film’s release, certainly no one had really seen anything like the crew of the Nostromo.  Sci-fi films were either swashbuckling or spare, kitschy or clinical.  Alien was gritty.  Archetypal.  A slasher film of a sort, but really the dawn of realism as we know it today in many modern movies.  The first of a kind, certainly, but heavily influenced by other works, and so it cannot bear the clean stamp of “original.”

1. The Matrix (1999)

What else would be my first choice?  This is the best sci-fi film of the last forty years.  It is breathtaking in its pace.  It is highly visual, yet completely intellectual and cerebral.  It is unassailably cool.  The cinematography broke new ground, the special effects totally pushed the limits, and the story couldn’t have come at a more perfect time in human history – right at the turn of the millennium, as thoughts of the Singularity were seeding, and we were just starting to really ride this wave of unrelenting technology.  Amazing that The Matrix could almost be dated now – but this is a testament to the exponential growth of technology the film features.  It is all these things, but is it Original?  No.  Aside from being a retelling of, well, Christ coming back to save humanity, the filmmakers got most of their ideas from a 1995 animated feature film called Ghost in the Shell.

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Well, did I do it?  Let me go back and count.

I’ve got ten, by my count.  Ten films which can be considered original, and twenty that took from a book, a comic, another film, or referenced history.

(I swear I didn’t do this in reverse and pre-calculate the results.  I actually thought I could find more evidence of source material for the rest of the films.)

What does all this prove?  That I am a complete nincompoop who just wasted half a day researching and writing this?  Yes.  But hopefully, in some small way, is also lends to quieting the need we seem to have lately for this elusive “original” film.  They’re out there, and they can be great, but we ought not discredit the film – or any work of art – which draws from others.

As the man once said, every artist can copy.

A great artist steals.

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