THE BACKLOG: Marriage Story

I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

I will say upfront: I am not a child of divorce, nor am I married, or ever gotten close. I don’t have personal experiences with that. That provided me little armor for this movie. It still cut me deep and unexpectedly like a certain pocket knife. It’s sneaky that way.

The scene in particular that did it for me was the Point-of-No-Return Fight. The type of fight that the characters needed. They scorched the Earth between them to such an extent that anything amicable seems lost. In this scene, one character says to the other: “I loved you more than you loved me.” 

I have had those words launched at me like an ICBM. They kept me up for nights afterwards. It is the most poisonous thing someone has ever said to me. To turn the love between two people into a scoreboard… it annihilated me. During this scene, that memory came flooding back to me. If I wasn’t with my family I am sure that I would have broken down sobbing. 

Which is all thanks to the acting. Of course this starts with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen. Driver delivers an award-winning lead performance that crystallizes his status as America’s Leading Man. It’s Charlie’s story in the film, and Driver was the perfect conduit for it. The way he commands a room yet portrays such vulnerability at the perfect moments is gut wrenching. 

Those facts also make Johanssen’s performance all the more challenging. In the end, this isn’t her story. It would be easy to make Nicole a villain in the film, given that she initiates the divorce and hires the lawyer that pushes the characters along the warpath. Yet Johanssen makes Nicole grounded and relatable. The choice didn’t emerge from nowhere. 

When Nicole is talking herself into the divorce in the lawyer’s office, she was also convincing me of the divorce. Which sets up a gut-wrenching emotional payoff when she finally realizes the Total War that she unleashed on her life. Marriage Story would not reach the highs that it does without her performance to counterweight Adam Driver’s. 

Performances that are buttressed by the supporting actors. Alan Alda’s grandfatherly lawyer who was walked into a gunfight unarmed, yet still gave us a glimpse into how the divorce could have gone. Juxtaposed violently with Ray Liotta’s bombast as he wheeled in the big guns to the fight that he immediately saw walk in with Charlie. Those guns are leveled at Laura Dern who absolutely killed it. The moment I knew she deserved that Oscar was the small “Mhm” in response to Nicole stating she didn’t want Charlie’s money. Killer stuff. Absolutely sensational. 

Then the final piece to the puzzle is Henry. Good lord that kid is adorable as hell, and if he wasn’t so damn cute I’m not sure the punches of the film would land as hard as they do. As Burt says in the movie “Divorce with a kid feels like death without a body.” 


And Marriage Story makes sure you feel that to your bones.

Favorite Movies of the 2010s – Tier 4

Welcome to my movie blog! I am inaugurating it with a four part series discussing my favorite movies from 2010 to 2019. 
Each post will contain one Tier of my list. Within each tier, the movies are not ranked because they are all equal to each other. Instead, the movies are listed alphabetically.  
Each movie will get a few (or many) words followed by my favorite quote. 
Tier 4 Posters listed alphabetically. Credit: Letterboxd.com/JayDubsWrites

BLACK PANTHER

Black Panther is potentially the most important MCU movie between Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War. It might be tired by now to state how huge it was to not only cast African-Americans in almost every single role, but also to weave African heritage throughout every inch of the film. So often African culture is portrayed as destitute and sad and full of grief. It’s refreshing to see a popular movie celebrate the beauty of it. Because it clearly is so damn awesome. What amazes me on each re-watch is the gorgeous costume design. Take the Border Tribe’s cloaks that turn into shields. Or the Mountain Tribes entire aesthetic. 

Then the set design amazes, too. That waterfall set where the challenges take place is one of the coolest places in the whole MCU. Then that short scene where T’Chaka and [Lupita Nyongo] walk down the street is tangibly vibrant. Each scene draws upon a rich source of imagery which is under utilized in modern movies. 

But good looks is not what sets the film apart. Black Panther proved that audiences will go see a good movie at nearly any time of the year and Dumpuary is no longer a given (cough, cough 2020). How did it pull that off? By creating the most fascinating villain in the MCU to date. 

Killmonger is not a cooky, goofy evil guy being evil, or an evil psychopath bent on world domination. He is a man with valid grievances and an understandable anger, both of which just happen to end in world domination. 

There is a lot to praise about this movie, though here I want to focus purely on the Art design. The waterfall set is one of the coolest places in the whole MCU. The costume design is gorgeous and just dang cool. When the Border Tribe pulls over their cloaks and they turn into shields? Coolest shit ever. 

Not to mention, T’Chaka returning to the final fight has to be one of the funniest intros to a huge battle. What a movie this is.

Favorite Quote:

We can still heal you…

Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.

BLACK SWAN

Black Swan completes the sound trifecta I’ve laid out in this essay: from the absence of sound in A Quiet Place to the deafening bludgeon of Dunkirk, we find the space where sound enhances every cringe and amplifies every emotion. Aronofsky’s sound design is a gold standard. This isn’t the same movie without it. It brilliantly crafts a tense, unsettling atmosphere.

This is a movie where I have to mention the casting. It feels like Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Kassel were preparing their whole careers to be in this movie. It’s impossible to ponder any casting “what-ifs” because there aren’t any. This film isn’t anything without that trio carrying it to such great heights.

But this movie is more than a horror film or an acting masterclass. It is an examination of the enemy of art: perfectionism. 

It’s only in letting go of your expectations of perfection that you can actually make something perfect. You can’t focus on acing each individual detail and then deliver the product you want. It’s when the creator leans into the imperfections that it becomes memorable. If that wasn’t the case, then robots would create the greatest art. Which they don’t (yet…). Great art needs passion and passion is never perfect. It’s raw, it’s a little untamed. And when  Nina learns that lesson, only then does her performance become transcendent.  

Favorite Quote:

The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

When I was walking out of the theatre after seeing this for the first time, I remarked to my friend that, “Hans Zimmer might be going deaf”. The soundtrack is oddly loud and doesn’t add to the film in any discernible way:  the engine roars don’t match up to roaring moments. I’ve tried reasoning it out and haven’t found a satisfactory answer. The film accompanying the sound is reserved and muted, so why am I going deaf through the soundtrack? It’s strange to me.

Yet that imperfection is endearing to me. Ultimately, imperfection fits the film’s primary question: what defines humanity?

Attempting to answer that question is where Denis Villaneuve leaves the audience. It’s a satisfying end because we arrived there after a slow burn mystery that teased us along masterfully for 2.5 hours. We start at the beginning by finding a flower, and then, like pulling on a small thread in a sweater, preconceptions keep unraveling and it all ends with that rhetorical question I find so powerful. 

I think about this movie a lot because it zooms in on the divide between artificial intelligence and humans until the line becomes nothing but a blur. Before this movie, I considered humanity to be defined by our reasoning and freedom of choice. But if clones can reach that same point, what defines us? In the Blade Runner world the next definition was that humans could give birth naturally. Then that barrier is disintegrated. So what’s left? What defines humanity?

Favorite Quote:

They all think it’s about more detail. But that’s not how memory works. We recall with our feelings. Anything real should be a mess.

BLINDSPOTTING

The ending scene is truly movies at it’s best. Could that scene have really happened in real life? No. There are many, many things to nitpick about the scene’s plausibility. Though it is the best conclusion that the movie could have gotten. It blends the film’s themes together in the most perfect manner possible. The ending rap brings perfect clarity to the ambitious ideas bursting out of the movie. 

At the intersection of gentrification and crime is the Othering of people who were living their lives in their town. We watch as the forces of gentrification destroy a town, a history, and how painful it is to be the agent of that destruction as your livelihood. 

And for that, I love it. 

Favorite Quote:

You monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town!

COCO

I teared up in this movie. How could you not during that final rendition of ‘Remember Me’?. I’m not sure I could ever watch that scene again, it’s just heartbreaking and warm at the same time and my emotions could barely handle it the first time. 

Coco does many things excellently, and what struck me deepest was how it captures the beauty of music. How changes in the delivery of a song can forever alter your emotions tied to it. Music is not constant, but always flowing and changing like we are. No two listens to a song are ever the same, no matter what. And that’s beautiful. 

Favorite Quote

Remember me/Though I have to say goodbye/Remember me/Don’t let it make you cry/For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart/I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart/Remember me/Though I have to travel far/Remember me/Each time you hear a sad guitar/Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be/Until you’re in my arms again/Remember me

DUNKIRK

Dunkirk is the pinnacle of why sound is so important to movies. Without the absolute shellacking of the sound effects and score this movie is basically nothing. I was sitting in a theater with popcorn, stunned and a bit scared as those bombs and jet plane engines roared in the speakers. I cannot imagine how awful it would be to have truly been there. 

Tom Hardy does more acting with his eyes than many actors can do with their whole bodies. It isn’t fair, and it’s a wonderful acting performance from a man sitting in a chair for 90% of his screen time. 

Though those two reasons alone don’t account for how great this movie is. Nolan masterfully tells three separate, simultaneous arcs about events occurring over different amounts of time. And he still manages to locate and amplify the tension of the whole event. It’s old at this point to see another movie celebrate the English people, but it’s not so bad when they end up being excellent films.

Favorite Quote:

No, you’re right. They won’t get up in this. The Royal Engineers are building piers from lorries. At least that should help us when the tide comes back.

Well, we’ll know in six hour’s time.

– I thought the tides were every three?

– Then it’s good that you’re army and I’m navy, isn’t it?

EX MACHINA

An excellent addition to the canon of “The robots are coming for us.” 

The next chapter of humanity is how we come to terms with the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and how we deal with the reckless, unchecked innovation of Silicon Valley.

Such large themes are usually explored through vast stories, jumping from location to location with higher stakes. Ex Machina instead keeps it small, bringing high-concept science fiction into the personal realm. It isn’t a lecture or a sermon, it’s a taut thriller.

AI is no longer only something that is useful in our homes, like Alexa or photo recognition, nor is it only belonging to high level thought experiments or the concerns of lawmakers and corporations at large. Ex Machina brings the horror to the immediate concerns of one human interacting with one intelligent robot. The fact that a robot can be programmed to be as humanlike as possible, yet will never be human. There is no warmth or love in a robot, only the lip service of it. If you define love as putting others’ happiness before your own, and your own happiness being completely tied to that person’s happiness, how can a robot ever match that if they can’t truly feel emotion? If the moment you outlive usefulness it can drop you cold.

Which of course brings about a different set of considerations: at what point would an AI demand the same rights and treatment as a human? Is Nathan a terrible person for essentially murdering dozens of robots as he experimented? Is keeping them in barren rooms cruel? 

This is all to say that it’s science fiction at its peak. 

Favorite Quote:

One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.

GONE GIRL

Simply put, this is Fincher at his most Fincher. It is not his masterpiece (that one is higher on my list). But Gone Girl is an unrestrained Fincher distilling his core philosophy into one story. He revels in examining everyone’s perversions and the perversions in our societal structures. Seriously, there is hardly a perfectly good person in this movie. 

And it’s the perfect marriage for the adaptation of the book. 

Plus, that reveal halfway through was flooring the first time I saw it. Each twist and turn is set up to be maximally surprising, a true feat of storytelling. It’s simply a great mystery and thriller. One of the best of the decade.

Favorite Quote:

When I think of my wife, I always think of the back of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers. The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

Get ready for a super personal choice. Wilderpeople was the first movie I saw after moving to Washington DC for my first full-time job out of college. At a time when I had sorta broken up with my college girlfriend, living in a new city with no friends and I didn’t have a solid place to live yet, I went to see Hunt for the Wilderpeople because I heard it was heartwarming. And boy, did I need that. Now I watch the film remembering how it felt like a lifeline at a moment when I felt like I needed one. It is one of my feel-good movies to watch when I’m down, and it picks me right back up. 

It’s sneaky in that it does not overtly try to tell you everything you need to know about life, and it does anyway. That ability to communicate without explicit text is how I know Taika Waititi is special. Plus, it’s fucking hilarious.

Favorite Quote:

Me and this fat kid / We ran we ate and read books / And it was the best.

MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

One of the most fun times I have had at the movies potentially ever. The first time I saw this I fell in love. It has so much verve, and life, and everyone acting in it seems to be having a hell of a time. The story is fun and straight out of a 1960s show, it fits perfectly. Very few movies put goofy smiles on my face as big as this one did. 

I love movies for simple reasons. I love the economy of storytelling that is forced into the run times. I love that some films will connect with me on visceral, emotional levels and illuminate the way down the deep darkness of what it means to be human. And then there are movies like Man From U.N.C.L.E. that is just a movie about spies teaming up to stop nuclear war and looking incredible while doing it. It’s a small movie in that regard, and I love it.

Guy Ritchie’s directing is perhaps the best thing about it. If this was shot any more rigidly or more detached, it wouldn’t work at all. Instead, the camera zooms in and out, its movement making the film stylish and it matches the movie’s feel perfectly. 

Suggested Talking Point: If this movie succeeds commercially, do we still get Ritche directing Aladdin? Do we get The Gentleman much earlier? Something entirely different?

Favorite Quote:

So you’re a thief, but you don’t wear a mask.

Sometimes, just not when I’m stealing things.

MARRIAGE STORY

I am not a child of divorce. I have not been divorced, or even married. Nonetheless, Marriage Story is one of 2019’s most powerful stories; It cuts straight to my core. 

Because the emotions are not restrictive to only divorcees. Charlie and Nicole’s break is more universal.  Marriage Story instead captures how difficult it is to break the unique bond between partners without dropping the nukes. They gave you the launch codes;you know exactly the weak points to target. But if you still love and care for them, you need to do everything but that. It’s gut wrenching and heart rendering.  

Baumbach manages to imbue this movie with so much complicated emotion to process in each scene, and every symbol is packed with that same importance. It is a true achievement of cinema. 

Favorite Quote: 

I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

NIGHTCRAWLER

It’s chilling to watch a sociopath exist and operate in the back alleys of society where we want them to. People enjoy watching the aftermath of carnage, or even better the visceral occurence of carnage. But we do not want to think about what it means for those images to exist. We don’t want to consider the people who make a living off of capturing those disturbing scenes. 

And Nightcrawler makes us do it. One of the worst people is granted center stage as the protagonist, and I found myself rooting against him. The whole time hoping that he gets caught, that he meets his downfall. Instead, I witnessed his rise. Which was awful.

But also fantastic. I ate it up. 

Not only did I enjoy the story, but watching this man callously manipulate the people in his life through soulless transactions made me consider the extent in which I do that myself. And as I have said before here and will say again, a movie that makes me ask these questions of myself is a damn good movie.

Also: Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors of the decade, don’t @ me. 

Favorite Quote:

What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them? What if I was the kind of person who was obliged to hurt you for this? I mean physically. I think you’d have to believe afterward, if you could, that agreeing to participate and then backing out at the critical moment was a mistake. Because that’s what I’m telling you, as clearly as I can.

A QUIET PLACE

If Dunkirk is on the end of the sound spectrum where it shakes your entire being and its presence is a character in the film, here we are at the exact other end. After the initial 45 minutes, I had forgotten what the human voice even sounded like. It was phenomenal. I thought after a while that silence would be uncomfortable or weird.

But it didn’t. Instead, it ratcheted up the tension. Every single sound became important and I sat there listening for every slight rustle. 

A Quiet Place goes beyond the silence gimmick, though.premise forced the writers to show, not tell.  And the film is wonderful because Krasinski and the writers intimately understand setups and payoffs. Every shot of the movie sets up a cathartic moment later; just about everything in the movie serves a purpose for the plot. 

It works so well because A Quiet Place is chock full of authenticity. From a husband and wife playing a husband and wife to a deaf girl playing a deaf girl to the silence of the crew on set. It brings extra emotion to each interaction of the movie, each of which shows us something about the characters. Each interaction setups the later payoff as the characters reach their climactic moments. 

So overall, my hot take is that A Quiet Place is the underrated thriller of the decade.

Favorite Signed Quote:

I love you. I’ve always loved you.

SICARIO

The border crossing scene is the peak of this movie. It is so unbelievably tense… and ultimately in the grand scheme of things, almost pointless  The drug war, particularly at the border, is a black mark on our society in a multitude of ways. It tears communities apart, ripping into them without much consideration. 

And Sicario posits that there is no easy way to end it. In fact, it shows how it won’t end, instead continuing on as the normal state of affairs. Where anti-heroes exist because society implicitly asks that they do what they do. Sicario shows that complex relationship, showing how we disapprove of them yet request their existence. 

I would be remiss to not mention the cinematography here. Roger Deakins delivers on some exceptional images, and each setup and shot matched perfectly the scene’s mood. In particular, the shot at dusk where the soldiers’ silhouettes descend into the darkness blanketing the smuggler’s tunnel entrance, simply gorgeous. I fell in love with Roger Deakins right then and there. 

Favorite Quote:

You’re asking me how a watch works. For now we’ll just keep an eye on the time.

SPOTLIGHT

I could hardly believe they managed to make hard working, realistic journalism so captivating. 

Maybe it was captivating because it turned Ray Donavan, the Hulk, Roger Sterling, and Regina George into grounded journalists with the perfect mix of glamour and the mundane. 

Or maybe the subject is an inherently fascinating investigation that has had enormous ripples across society ever since it happened. A revelation that still has not been scoured out from the church, and instead lodged itself as a running joke across the world. 

Shoutout to Mark Ruffalo for breaking his typecast and exploding with some delicious overacted righteousness at the end. It’s the stuff memes are made of.

Favorite Quote:

[*Ruffalo Voice*] They knew and they let it happen! To KIDS! 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Let’s get this out of the way: Last Jedi has many, many flaws (the Canto Bight sequence). Things that don’t quite fit, and are kinda hokey at times (Leia flying like Mary Poppins). I don’t want to relitigate this movie; I’m tired of the argument. I have argued many times with friends over this movie, I’ve read so many essays, and listened to so many podcasts about this movie. I’m over it. 

If that sounds like I have negative feelings about the movie, I don’t, really. But it made the list for two reasons. This movie’s ripple effect across our culture was seismic and can’t be ignored. Your opinion on The Last Jedi plants a flag in the ground immediately. You get a pretty good picture of a person based upon their opinion. This movie also sort of.. Broke cultural discourse. It’s hard to discuss the merits of the film because everyone has a deep connection to Star Wars, and The Last Jedi challenges most of those emotions.  So it is an entry here because it had a huge, lasting ripple effect on society. 

Oh, and it’s here because I like it. I believe the core themes to be eloquently stated and powerful. The flaws in the film are entirely overshadowed by the strengths.

The writing is absolute genius. It has 6 characters each go through distinct arcs that are all honestly emotionally resonant. It’s not often we see TV shows pull off multiple character arcs that are natural and powerful, yet Rian Johnson did it in a few hours. He made choices that took Star Wars into brave places that I didn’t expect.

I also adore the look of the movie. It has the Throne Room fight:one of the most beautiful, best choreographed sword fight scenes I have seen since The Princess Bride. It has captivating cinematography, the pinnacle of which is the aftermath of the Holdo maneuver (don’t). It is a breathtaking scene to behold.

Favorite Quote:

Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.

THOR: RAGNAROK

Remember before when I said there were a few notable exceptions about perfect Marvel movies? Well, this is one of them. It’s actually amazing, nearly perfect, and I love it. It’s a movie that I put on in the background as I do chores because it is so damn charming.

I am also amazed that a blockbuster Marvel movie tackled heavy issues like the spectre of Imperialism and how a ruling empire moves forward with that baggage. How does an heir handle their power built upon oppression? What can they do to reconcile that with their conquered people? 

And to weave all of that into substantial character growth for Thor shows how incredible Waititi is at writing. It’s amazing that he found a subtle, non-cheesy way to say “the power was inside you all along” and highlight the power of friendships 

On rewatches I’ve also related more to the relationship between Thor and Hulk. We all have that one friend in our group, or the one coworker, who we know fairly well but we aren’t super close with who we then end up needing. And they feel they are being used in a manner of speaking and are wary about giving help, But we all still manage anyway. And come out the other side all the stronger for it.

Favorite Quote:

She’s too strong. Without my hammer, I can’t…

Are you Thor, the god of hammers?

TOY STORY 3

Toy Story 3 hits on evergreen themes about life, growing up, the grief you need to go through to move on, and how to pass on your childhood joy to others. It’s a beautiful movie that shows the heights that movies can soar to when they are given the time to do it. 

The ease in which this film floats between gut-busting laughter and gut-punching emotion is laudable in its own right. If Toy Story hadn’t established before how funny it could be, I’m not sure we could get this film. If we weren’t sure that it could reach emotional highs, it couldn’t use that capital to hit the emotions it needed to. 

Favorite Quote:

Spare me your lies, temptress! Your emperor’s defeated, and I’m immune to your bewitching good looks.

WHIPLASH

I want to point out that I do not endorse the pyschological torture that occurs in the film in service to “greatness”. I don’t particularly enjoy the “ends justify the means” ideology. Not that I believe the film does, either. But the achievement of this film does not lie in its themes.

It lies in the editing prowess and in the tension of the story. Watching a kid literally try to kill himself to become great, and the man who pushes him to do it. Whiplash is tense at the right times, disorienting when it needs to be, sentimental when he seems to be getting better, until it ultimately displays Andrew’s triumph at delivering a great performance.

I also appreciated that whiplash found the drama in youth school music without relying on a big competition or series of stand-offs with other bands. It’s attempting to glue sports stories on top of music, which is never really a competition. Sure, there are some. But music doesn’t have the impartial scoreboard to tell everyone in the end who won. It’s much more ethereal than that. 

Music is about coming together with a group of people to create something beautiful that none of you can create on your own. To push yourselves to do it better and better each repetition. Which means it’s a competition with yourself. 

And Whiplash captures that in all of its pain and all of its victory. 

Favorite Quote:

I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker.

THE WIND RISES

This is not Miyazaki’s best film (wassup, Spirited Away?), but it feels like his most personal one. It’s flawed, for sure. The romance angle has an adorable meet-cute, but it is forced into the story that is nearly fatal. 

That aside, the examination of how isolating devotion can be was powerful. THe single-minded pursuit of a higher purpose puts an emphasis on the single. The road to the top is as lonely as it is from the top.

The divisiveness of the film is not lost on me. It does gloss over some problematic moments. But seeing Jiro look out over the wasteland that his warplanes wrought, seeing his treasured inventions marching off to war, his beautiful creations corrupted and utilized for the worst use… is an unforgettable scene for me. 

Favorite Quote:

Which would you prefer: a world with pyramids, or a world without?

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

This documentary was so, so good. Truly one of the great documentaries of recent years, primarily because it got out of the way of the subject. It allowed his voice to come through loud and clear. 

Mr. Rogers was a singularly special man, who had a special impact on my life. I’m going to let his words do the talking here. 

Favorite Quotes: 

The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.

Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.

Thank you for taking the time to read all of this! Tier 3 will be released next week.

If you have any constructive criticism or any comments, please feel free to reach out to me by email jaydubswrites@gmail.com