Top 5 Directorial Debuts: Part I (the 2000’s)

So this weekend, I was revisiting Sex, Lies, and VideotapeSteven Soderbergh’s explosive debut feature film from 1989 – and a few thoughts came to mind. First, was how fast time flies. I vividly recall seeing this intelligent and intimate little film in theaters with good friends and raving about it long after – 23 years ago! Second was how well the film holds up – a whole generation later, it is just as affecting and impressive as it was when it (and by proxy, Soderbergh) was the talk of Hollywood. Finally, and what inspired me to write this post was the question – where have all of the splashy film directorial debuts gone? You look at the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and the names of filmmakers who came on the scene in striking fashion are pretty outstanding. The decade 2000 – 2009…well, not so much.

Take the 1980’s. And look at the awe-inspiring names who came out of it…not just directors who started in the 80’s, but those who made waves in their very first film. Soderbergh is just one – and with “Sex, Lies…” (and his Oscar nomination for it) you knew he was the real deal. Cameron Crowe (1989’s Say Anything), Barry Levinson (Diner), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), and Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat) are just a small handful of filmmakers who burst on the scene in the 1980’s. Perhaps most notably would be the Coen Brothers, whose debut film Blood Simple came out in 1984. Most critics felt something special with the talents of Joel and Ethan. Vincent Canby of The New York Times sure did, declaring Blood Simple to be the most impressive debut feature since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane. Talk about lofty praise and grand expectations. Now, nearly 20 years later, the Coen Brothers have managed to surpass those expectations and remain at the forefront of American film directors, creating extraordinary work on a consistent basis.

The 1990’s? More impressive names and the talent, just as significant. Quentin Tarantino brought us Reservoir Dogs in 1991, Paul Thomas Anderson hit the screens with Hard Eight (1996), and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave was released in 1994. Other exceptional debuts? Larry Clark (Kids), Sean Penn (The Indian Runner), Christopher Nolan (Following), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), and Todd Haynes (Poison).

However, you’d be hard-pressed to find many stellar debuts since the millennium. Of course new directors emerge each year, but it seems that it takes them a few putts to actually sink one in. Very few come on the scene with guns blazing and a blitzkrieg of amazing press. So I did some research and looked up all of the directorial debuts since 2000. There weren’t very many to pick from, but here are my Top 5 Directorial debuts since 2000. I’d love to hear from you and see who you might put on this list.

5.  Scott Frank (The Lookout, 2007)

Frank’s resume as a screenwriter is super-impressive (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, just to name a few). What’s even more impressive? His debut as director with this smart, savvy and hugely entertaining crime thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I was so impressed by it that I actually put it at the top of my favorite films of that year. Levitt’s character is a young athlete with a promising career. A tragic accident derails all of his hopes and dreams and years later, as he tries to sustain some state of normalcy, he is coerced into robbing a bank. A great achievement and a film that I would recommend to just about anyone. I am left wondering why it is taking so long for his follow-up…

4. Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, 2005)

He’s not just on this list because he’s a fellow Long Islander, but because he is responsible for bringing a new wave of comedy to a completely new generation of film-goers. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call him the modern day Mel Brooks or even (dare I say) Woody Allen. Known mainly as a writer, Apatow debuted with this delightful, smart, and hysterical film starring Steve Carell and Catherine Keener. In most of his works, Apatow has a tremendous knack for giving us perverse and (at times) disgusting comedy, but combining it with remarkable heart — as he does here with poor Carell and his little…problem. Apatow has also managed to highlight the comedic talents of a fresh new batch of actors who have appeared in a number of his projects. An impressive debut, a major player, and one of the funniest films to come out in recent years.

3. Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, 2006)

Perhaps it’s in the genes. After a number of short films, Reitman came out with this dark comedy and was, in my opinion, one of the year’s very best. This biting satire stars Aaron Eckhart as a company spokesman for big tobacco. While trying to put a positive spin on a substance that kills millions, he tries to maintain some relationship with his young and impressionable son who looks up to him like a rock star. Great script, terrific performances, and deft direction. A memorable debut from a talent that has since come out with strong works such as Up in the Air and Young Adult — seeming to get the most from his gifted actors — and has clearly developed a style and voice all his own.

2. Neill Blomkamp (District 9, 2009)

A fantastic directorial debut and a movie that I put at the #1 spot of that year. Based on his short film a few years prior, District 9 offers a superb analogy of the horrific events that took place in District Six of Cape Town during the apartheid era and deals with themes of xenophobia and segregation. I’m not even a sci-fi fan at all, but I couldn’t help but be moved and amazed by Blomkamp’s masterful work. Love the style that it is shot in and Sharlto Copley delivers an outstanding performance as Wikus van de Merwe, a mild-mannered manager at the Department of Alien Affairs, whose entire life is changed when he becomes infected. And to think this was Copley’s first time acting in a feature film. This film is an extraordinary cinematic achievement — and it will be very interesting to see what the future holds for this very talented artist.

1. Todd Field (In the Bedroom, 2001)

Little Children was a remarkably powerful film and a tremendous achievement. But In the Bedroom marked Field’s debut as a filmmaker, after years of being in front of the camera. This film, starring Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, and Sissy Spacek was, in my estimation, one of the very best to come out the entire decade. Field not only adapts Andre Dubus’ short story with expert precision, but gets A+ performances from his entire ensemble and creates a mood and New England-y feel that is unmistakable. Field makes the kind of film I would so want to make — as we watch a grieving couple try to cope with the tragic death of their son — and see the father (a magnificent Wilkinson), begin to take matters into his own hands. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat through this movie – and it never ceases to move and affect me. To me, In the Bedroom is the debut of the 2000’s — and I will be in line very early to see his next film Creed of Violence later this year.

Other very impressive debuts by filmmakers I’d love to see more from: Sarah Polley (the very moving Away From Her), Steve McQueen (Hunger), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and I really hope that the brilliant writer and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) gets back behind the camera soon!

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART II’ will cover the 1970’s, the best decade of cinema ever!!!

Peter Eramo’s “Top 25 Comedies of the Decade”: Part Due

I posted the first part of my “Top 25 Comedy Films of the Decade” (2000-2009) a few days ago. What I find fascinating about these lists is that, no matter which films you include/omit, you’re likely to get a lot of beef about it: “How can you put so-and-so on the list?” “How can you leave out such-and-such a film?” Don’t get me wrong, I love any & all comments and I’m always up for a good debate (especially when it comes to movies I feel strongly about). But everyone’s list is going to be different from someone else’s…it’s all just one writer’s opinion (though I do happen to be right…HA!).

Now, I tried very hard not to include too many “obscure” films on the list (whatever the hell that means). But hey, what am I going to do? If I saw the movie and thought it was funny as hell, am I not supposed to include it simply because it is lesser known than “Napoleon Dynamite” (which you won’t see on this list and you’d have to threaten to do me severe bodily harm for me to even consider its inclusion). It sounds silly to me to omit a small film like “The Amateurs” (which I think is a terrific film and pretty damn hilarious) on the basis that not many have seen it. If anything, perhaps someone reads the list [cricket sounds], learns a little about a film they haven’t yet seen, and decides to rent it. I know when I read another writer’s list (on a blog or magazine, etc.) and I am not familiar with a movie…if it sounds good, I’ll put it in my queue for sure! So no, I am not in any way trying to go out of my way to put these little known films on the list (not that anyone is accusing me). And I’m not including a movie just because it seems to be on everyone else’s list covering the same genre. All I did was go through all the comedies I have seen from 2000-2009 and go from there. Like I said in my earlier posting, I started with about 50 and did my best to condense it to 25 funny films. In the end, I only tried to be true to myself and go with the movies I thought were the 25 funniest (in addition to being a good film, which was part of my criteria). It is all a moot point anyway, as the films that follow are mostly all very well-known. Here it is…Part Due of the Best Comedies of the Decade! Let the debate continue!!!

#15. Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)

Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of Charlie Kaufman, ladies and gentlemen. Directed by Spike Jonze, this is an unbelieveably unique and oftentimes hilarious, offbeat film that unmistakably comes from the mind of Kaufman himself. The movie features a comically complex performance by Nicolas Cage as a writer who is trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction, un-adaptable book “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay. We watch the action of the book as we watch Kaufman (Cage) struggle to put it on the page. Cage also plays Charlie’s twin brother Donald who is much more carefree and dreams of becoming rich and famous for his own screenplays. Cage is the cornerstone of this film and he actually does a brilliant job in this dual role of the opposing brothers, which echoes Sam Shepard’s terrific play, “True West.” We also watch Meryl Streep (Orleans) interview and slowly fall in love with her subject, John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Both Streep and Cooper are terrific to watch here and all of the stories intertwine at some point with surprising results. The film is so bizarre and so quirky — if you enjoyed “Being John Malkovich” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” then you must definitely give this a watch. Kaufman has his own unique brand of comedy which not only challenges his audience to think, but gives them a tremendous payoff by being funny as hell.

#14. Pineapple Express (dir. David Gordon Green)

Seth Rogen hasn’t shown us much range as an actor and pretty much plays the same type of character, but you know what? He makes us laugh. Here, he plays lazy stoner Dale Denton who pisses people off every day by issuing them court-ordered subpoenas. He also is trying to manage his relationship with a high school girl eight years younger than he is. What does he do to escape? He visits his dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco). Franco has shown pretty good versatility as an actor and here, you can tell that he must have had a ball playing the languid, chilled-out, munchie-eating Saul. The two make a great pair in this incredibly funny buddy film. After purchasing the new Pineapple Express weed (Saul explains to him: “What you do… is you light all three ends at the same, and the smoke converges, creating a trifecta of joint-smoking power. This is it, man. This is what your grandchildren are gonna be smoking.”), Dale witnesses a murder by a crooked cop and leaves his new weed behind at the scene of the crime. bad news for Dale as it can of course be traced back. Dale’s hum-drum life is turned upside down as he and Saul spend the rest of the movie running for their lives from bad cops and other bad dudes. The camaraderie between the two is terrific, the one-liners are outrageously funny and the supporting cast lends their own comic talents as well. Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Gary Cole and the under-rated Kevin Corrigan are all terrific to watch. There is a lot of action, a lot of vulgarity, a lot of witty banter — all adding up to this movie being a whole lotta fun.

#13. Hamlet 2 (Andrew Fleming)

Listen, any movie with a musical number entitled “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” deserves a spot on this list just based on that alone. Steve Coogan is getting much more notice the past few years and looks to be a comedic force to be reckoned with. Here, he plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor who has relocated to Tuscon, Arizona to become an even worse high school drama teacher. Most of the comedy stems from Dana’s own limitations as an actor (“I’m having a herpes outbreak, right now – but you’d never know it. Thanks, Herpocol!” he says in a horrible looking commercial) and his completely inept teaching. He is informed by administration that drama will be cut the next semester due to budget cuts and when confronted with a student who writes for the school newspaper, Dana decides he’s going to save the theatre department or at least go out with a bang! He writes his own play, “Hamlet 2,” a sequel to the classic Shakespeare tragedy whereby the Prince of Denmark is paired with Jesus Christ to go back in time (via….you guessed it, a time machine)  to save the lives of Gertrude and Ophelia. I hate political correctness and this film is so politically incorrect that I absolutely loved it. Coogan is an absolute riot and carries the film extremely well. Though it has hints of the failed actor in “Waiting for Guffman,” Fleming’s comedy stands completely on its own. The students in Dana’s class provide even more humor and the way Coogan relates to each of them is great fun. Elisabeth Shue also has a delightful small role here. What makes everything more outrageous is Dana’s pomposity and delusions of grandeur…he truly believes that he is in the midst of creating a theatrical masterpiece. Sometimes it is painful to even watch, but in the best of ways.

#12. I ♥ Huckabees (dir. David O. Russell)

Certainly not a film for everyone. A somewhat polarizing film as many I know either loved it immeasurably — or hated it, with great prejudice. I belong to the former and consider O’Russell’s existential comedy to be one the most original, challenging comedies to come out in recent years. The stellar cast — Dustin Hoffman (reminding us of his brilliance), Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg (who should have received a supporting actor nom for this one), Naomi Watts, Jason Schwartzman, and Isabelle Huppert are all in top form. Hoffman and Tomlin play a husband-and-wife detective team that don’t take on traditional cases. No, they are existential detectives and they are hired by Albert (Schwartzman) to solve the coincidence of seeing the same complete stranger three times in a day. The tecs insist that they spy on his every move as they share with him their views on life and other philosophical issues. This film stands by itself on this list as being one that will constantly challenge its viewers — it is daring, creative, wholly unique, articulate, intelligent and yes, pretty damn funny. You catch something new with each viewing and O’Russell refuses to spell it all out for you. It is an affecting film, with an array of quirky and memorable characters. A daring film that is unlike most everything that Hollywood churns out — and never has to sacrifice any of the (very many) laughs in the process.

#11. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (dir. Nicholas Stoller)

Not much new in the overall plot: boy loses girl, tries to get over his broken heart, finds true love. However, it’s how this story is told that make this a refreshing, sweet, & funny movie. Jason Segel’s script makes an old plot arc come alive with newness and, with Stoller’s direction, the two bring its own unique voice to the screen. Here, Segel plays the likable, romantic Peter Bretter who is dumped by his TV-star girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell). He is completely devastated and goes into a tremendous funk. His stepbrother (a very funny Bill Hader) suggests he take a vacation and so he does. Without any planning, he heads off to a heavenly resort in scenic Oahu, Hawaii. Can you guess who he bumps into there? Yup. Sarah…in tow with her new boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) who is a world-famous, perverse rock star who can’t get enough of the ladies or himself. Peter is befriended by the hotel’s clerk (Mila Kunis) and all four of them try to make the best of a very awkward situation. A very funny film with out-loud laughs throughout. Segel is an endearing romantic lead who we empathize with and root for. Some added comedy by Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill in supporting roles here as well. Kunis is a striking female ingenue here and is not only heavenly to look at, but is strong and funny in her own right. A great date movie, though not a “chick flick” by any means. Like most films out by this crew, it doesn’t skimp out on the trashy language, sex humor and overall vulgarity….but it never goes off course, managing to keep its heart and charm throughout.

#10. Monsters, Inc. (dir. Pete Docter)

A film for all ages, “Monsters, Inc.” remains my favorite Pixar motion picture so far. Here, Monsters, Inc. is a corporation that hires monsters of all kinds to scare children at night, channeling these nighttime screams into power for the city. However, they are terribly afraid of being infected by these children, so when a little girl named Boo (Mary Gibbs) enters this world, it disrupts the city and mainly the life of the company’s top scarer, Sulley (John Goodman). This is an adorable film, with constant laughs. What Robin Williams did to animated films in “Aladdin,” Billy Crystal does here with his green, one-eyed character, Mike. As Sully’s best friend (and agent in many ways to keep Sully at the #1 spot), Crystal lets the one-liners fly throughout. Steve Buscemi’s voice is perfect for the weasley Randall Boggs and Jennifer Tilly is very sweet as Celia, an employee of the corporation and Mike’s love interest as well. Sulley may be gigantic and intimidating on the outside, but he is just a big cuddly monster at heart and Goodman adds a tremendous warmth and tenderness to him. His bond with Boo is a touching one. The story is innovative, the animation is impressive, the talent inspiring and the movie…simply delightful.

#9. Death at A Funeral (dir. Frank Oz)

Before Hollywood decided to remake this very same film for an American audience — a whopping three years later (shame on you, LaBute), there was this outrageously funny comedy. And I don’t get it…it’s a British friggin’ movie! You didn’t even need to read subtitles or anything!!! Anyway, I have no desire to see the new version, but would recommend to anybody and everybody to rent this movie — for its clever and creative script, pitch-perfect timing, great cast and non-stop hilarity. The patriarch of a highly dysfunctional family dies and it is up to his son Daniel (Mathhew Macfadyen) to organize his funeral. In the gravest of circumstances, all chaos breaks loose and in that chaos, pure comedy: an undertaker screws up his job, his cousin’s fiance accidentally takes acid and is tripping the light-fantastic, his selfish brother flies back from the States, and a handicapped uncle who is an outright pain in the neck. On top of this, is the mysterious presence of a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who no one seems to know, but threatens to reveal a dark family secret. I remember when I saw this, I could not stop laughing. I’m usually not even much of a fan of British humor, but I instantly fell in love with the characters and the storytelling. There are moments of dark humor to be sure (it’s a funeral for Jiminy’s sake), but most of the comedy is dry as the characters are all put into very compromising positions. There is something very “real” about the characters as well as we sympathize with their mourning, though the film never gets over-dramatic at all. There is also a very “theatrical” feel to it all, as if it had been written for the stage in the same manner as “Noises Off” was — something is always happening, and it comes at you fast — and funny.

#8. Elf (dir. Jon Favreau)

Upon its release in 2003, “Elf” quickly became one of my all-time favorite holiday films thanks to its ever-so enchanting screenplay (David Berenbaum), astute direction, marvelous casting, picturesque art direction and of course, its leading man, Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf. And though I cannot deny that yes, it is a holiday film, I find it much more than that. This is a wonderful motion picture and can make me laugh out loud anytime of the year, including the dog days of summer. From the day he was born, Buddy is an outsider, raised as an elf at the North Pole by his father (how awesome was the casting of the stuttering Bob Newhart as Papa Elf?). Though he tries and tries so very hard to do well, Buddy just creates all kind of havoc while there and is eventually sent to New York City to find his real father — and in the process, finding his real self (how profound is that?!). Will Ferrell is nothing short of marvelous here and his childlike, inexperienced enthusiasm resembles that of Tom Hanks in “Big.” Ferrell is a polished comedian and here, we see him play a role that seems to be unfamiliar terrain to him, and he nails every aspect of it. He takes all of his fervor and energy and manages to put it into a sweet family film rather than his usual fare. Just answering the phone, he picks it up saying, “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” and we laugh. In another great casting move, James Caan plays Buddy’s real father…the polar opposite of Buddy who is all work and very little play and has absolutely no time to play in his son’s reindeer games. Ed Asner is a wonderful Santa Claus and Zooey Deschanel is the woman who  steals Buddy’s heart. The love story within this comedy is heartwarming and Deschanel is simply quite captivating. The movie is simply contagious and makes you laugh from beginning to end. “I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite,” Buddy says. If you too like to smile, then this is a must-see.

#7. The 40 Year-Old Virgin (dir. Judd Apatow)

After years of writing for television, Apatow made his debut as a film writer/director with this foul-mouthed, yet very appealing movie. Steve Carell (who co-wrote the script) stars as Andy. He’s 40 years old and yes…much to his male friends’ surprise, he’s a virgin! Andy rides a bike to work, his apartment is clustered with collectors’ item action figures and in his spare time, he likes to paint his miniature figurines in silence. He is surely the odd-man out of his bawdy group of male friends that include Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Romany Malco. Feeling mounting pressure (no pun intended) by his pals to finally do the deed, Andy meets Trish (Catherine Keener), a single mother with three kids. Because she’s been with a lot of creeps in her past, Trish jokes that they should take it slow and begin their relationship with a no-sex policy…that is fine for Andy and they agree on no sexual activity for the first twenty dates. Carell is perfect here as he creates an awkward, nervous and very endearing character. Andy is a nice guy looking for love — and no one, not even Trish can fathom that such a man still exists (“You know what? I respect women! I love women! I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them!”). Much of the laughs stem from Andy’s sexual naiveté and his lame efforts into bedding a woman. The supporting cast is terrific here. In addition to the aforementioned actors, Elizabeth Banks, Gerry Bednob, and Jane Lynch as Andy’s not-so-discreet boss all make the very best of their running time. The chest-waxing scene became an instant classic and the “You know how I know you’re gay?” repartee is scathingly funny (“You know how I know you’re gay?” “How?” “You like Coldplay.”). “The 40 Year Old Virgin” does not tire with repeated viewings and remains the foundation for the Apatow comedies and the myriad of Apatow-like comedies released since then. I find it amazing that a film so crude and so dirty can still manage to be so pure and engaging. A credit to sir Apatow on finding a wonderful balance.

#6. Thank You For Smoking (dir. Jason Reitman)

One of the truly great satire comedies of recent years, to be sure. Before the over-rated “Juno” and the delightful “Up in the Air,” Reitman wrote and directed this wonderful comedy with an all-star cast. Aaron Eckhart truly shines as Nick Taylor who is the #1 spokesperson for the tobacco industry. Nick loves his job and he is a master at the art of speech and spin. In a time when the health risks involved in smoking are so obvious for all the world to see, Nick’s job has become all the more difficult. But Nick uses his skillset and twisted logic to promote the act of smoking against anyone willing to take him on. His biggest nemesis? Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (a very funny William H. Macy) who wants to bring Taylor and the entire industry down. The script is smart and fast-paced, mocking a number of industries all at once. The supporting cast is wonderful, especially J.K. Simmons, Rob Lowe, Katie Holmes, Sam Elliott and David Koechner. There is also a great subplot following Taylor’s relationship with his 12-year old son Joey, who looks up to him like he’s a superhero. Joey escorts his father on an important business trip and Nick must figure out how to juggle doing his job and being a role model to his adoring son. The MOD Squad (“Merchant of Death”) scenes are very clever as the three lobbyists (for smoking, alcohol and gun control) fight over whose industry has killed more people. Reitman’s dialogue is pitch perfect and very clever. There haven’t been many good satires in recent years, so this stands out even more. A comedy with a lot of bite and a lot to say…

Only five more funny films to go! I will post what I thought to be the 5 Best Comedies of the decade that was 2000-2009 in the next day or two. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts and opinions on the very best comedies of the decade.

All I know is that it’s a sad day when I look at a full decade and realize that Woody Allen or Albert Brooks is not a part of such a list. What did Dylan say? “The Times, They are A-Changin…”

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