#NOFF2018 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost a full month since the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival has concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I will be recording a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on a near-future episode of the podcast (Episode 71, due early December) – in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why we suspect Vox Lux is going to be the mother! of 2018. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Vox LuxLike mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.”

2. Pig Film “The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.”

3. Chained for Life “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

4. The Gospel of Eureka “The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.”

5. United Skates “A documentary ‘about’ black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments.”

6. Cane River (1982) – “Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance.”

7. Jules of Light and Dark“Dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when the fallout from ‘the last rave of the year’ leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.”

8. Empty MetalEmpty Metal‘s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against vile real-life public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.”

9. Nailed It “As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.”

10. This One’s for the Ladies . . . “As compelling (and visually interesting) as its subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way.”

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 11/15/18 – 11/21/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, a healthy balance of prestigious Oscar contenders and schlocky genre pictures.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Widows Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, not Bullitt) cashes in some of his prestige points to make an action-thriller heist picture about a group of ordinary women who reluctantly transform into violent criminals. I’m always on the hook for an artfully staged genre picture, and I’d love to see this one’s pedigree land an action flick in Oscar contention.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic would normally not be something I’d rush out to see. The talent on-hand here is too substantial to ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently-compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her is Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade.

Castle in the Sky (1986) Another classic Hayao Miyazaki anime re-released into national distribution thanks to animation saviors G-Kids. I don’t know much about this one in particular except that its title promises plenty of the gorgeous animation of flight Miyazaki is incredibly skilled at. Screening November 18, 19, and 20 via Fathom Events.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Overlord This is less the Nazi Zombie Movie tedium delivered in Dead Snow than it is an over-the-top descendant of Re-Animator, reinterpreted as a WWII video game. It’s cartoonish schlock with a big studio budget behind it – a deliriously fun, cathartic middle finger to the Nazi grotesqueries of the modern world.

Halloween (2018) –This David Gordon Green-directed, Danny McBride-cowritten, Blumhouse-produced soft-reboot of the eponymous John Carpenter 1978 proto-slasher has to satisfy two entirely different audiences: people who want to know what Original Final Girl Laurie Strode is up to 40 years later and first-weekend horror audiences who just want to see some interesting slasher kills. I believe it did a great job of satisfying both sides of that binary in two separate tracks, then converging them in a thoughtful way that has a lot to say about Fate, senseless violence, and the obsessive thought-loops of trauma recovery.

Venom A C-grade superhero movie that treads water for at least a half-hour, then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy with an outright Nic Cagian lead performance from Tom Hardy. Venom is a less satirically pointed, big-budget version of Upgrade or a modernized Henenlotter, but its highs are also much funnier (and surprisingly queerer) than either of those reference points. It’s a lot of fun if you maintain your patience through the first act.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/12/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are playing on the big screen in the New Orleans area this week. The selection is a little thin this round (in numbers, not quality), but that’s about to change with the upcoming, first-ever Filmtopia film festival launching at Prytania Theatre later this month.

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Sorry to Bother You – Although I’ve been anticipating this surrealist satire since it made a huge splash at Sundance early this year, I can’t report many details to anyone not already on the hook because I’ve been trying to go in as blind as possible myself. The trailer teases some Michel Gondry-style visual experimentation mixed with no-fucks-given social satire and a knockout cast that includes Tessa Thomson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer and, in the lead role, Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield. This is one you want to see big, loud, and early, as it promises to be a visual spectacle & a political bomb-thrower everyone will be discussing for the rest of the year (and beyond).

3. Ant-Man and the Wasp – Just a couple months after the exhaustive spectacle of Avengers: Infinity War, it’d be understandable if MCU burnout kept most people from being too excited for another entry into the franchise. Like The Guardians of the Galaxy before it, though, the first Ant-Man film was surprisingly charming & lightweight in its allowance to play around in isolation from the more labored, franchise-wide concerns of the MCU, so this sequel could be good for some frivolous, one-off fun. Boomer & I were both positive on its predecessor in our joint Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, so I’m more than willing to return for more.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Yellow Submarine (1968) – A 4k restoration of the animated Beatles classic theatrically re-released for its 50th anniversary. This movie cheats a little in dubbing in the Fab Four’s voices with impersonators (when they’re not singing, at least), but more than makes up for that faux pas with a non-stop onslaught of trippy visuals. Only screening at Prytania Theatre for a single-week engagement.

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A Fred Rogers documentary that’s all but guaranteed to make you well up with both tears & awe. This film doubles as both a document of a philosophically-minded art project that aired on public television for over three decades (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) and a profile of a fascinating man who’s easy to love but difficult to fully understand. Enjoying its third week of screenings in the city, this tiny film is still miraculously gaining momentum, even joining the Yellow Submarine restoration for a week-long run at Prytania (which is apparently our MVP for the week).

-Brandon Ledet

The Well-Intentioned Letdown of When John Waters Targeted the Art World

Starting with the mid-career course correction of Polyester, cult director John Waters had a kind of creative epiphany. In his earliest works of divine genius (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, etc.), the trash-dwelling provocateur gave life to insular freakshows of over-the-top Baltimore personalities, outsiders who were naturally exuding a punk rock nastiness when hippie feel-goodery still ruled the counterculture. Polyester and its suburban-set follow-ups (Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom) found an even more subversive platform for his cinematic freaks, contrasting their outlandish trashiness with the supposedly more well-behaved sect of Proper Society. Hairspray & Cry-Baby were especially adept at exposing suburbia for being a sea of hateful, racist, close-minded assholes in a way that wouldn’t be apparent in more insular settings like Desperate Living‘s Mortville, where the weirdos keep to themselves. After four consecutive films exposed this suburban evil, however, Waters was in need of a new target. Mainstream commercial success had entirely changed his outsider status as a renegade filmmaker & a provocateur by the mid-90s. Waters found himself the toast of both the suburban monsters he’d lampooned for the better part of a decade and the art world snobs who enjoyed his early works for their supposed dedication to irony. With suburbia thoroughly skewered, the director fired off two successive films that targeted the ironic hipsters & mainstream moviegoers who fundamentally misunderstood his passions & his appeal. The intent was admirably calculated, but the results were . . . mixed.

It pains me to write anything even remotely negative about a director I consider to be the greatest artist, if not greatest human being, of all times forever. The nu-metal vibes of the late 90s & early 00s were just poisonous for pop culture in general, though, so it would make sense that Waters would experience the worst creative slump of his career in that era. You can feel him introspectively reaching for something to say in his 1998 comedy Pecker, which continues his childhood period piece navel-gazing in Hairspray & Cry-Baby by centering on a weirdo teen artist who accidentally makes it big just by goofing around with his nobody loved-ones in Baltimore. I think the biggest misconception of Waters’s career, particularly in his early “trash” pictures, is that his portrayals of over-the-top Baltimore caricatures are entirely rooted in a sense of irony. Those pictures are actually coming from a place of feverishly obsessive love. There’s obviously a sense of camp that informs his humor, but Waters also deeply loves & admires early regulars like Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey (as well as his home city of Baltimore) and seemingly only makes his films as a way to document & broadcast their art & their obsessions. Pecker is, above all else, a film about that clash between his intent & public perception of his work. Just as Waters obsessively made movies about his weirdo friends in 1970s Baltimore, he depicts a young photographer (Edward Furlong, the titular Pecker) who obsessively documents his loved ones & their surroundings on the same city streets. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when, in the film and in life, Big City hipsters latch onto those characters only with a sense of irony, laughing at them instead of with them.

Pecker is a film about obsession & authenticity. Even beyond the titular protagonist’s bottomless passion for photography, every character in his social circle has a sitcom-esque dedication to a singular interest: candy, laundromats, shoplifting, clothing the homeless, gay men, pubic hair, ventriloquism, teabagging, etc. These damned souls stay dutifully within their own lanes, only speaking on their one respective topic of interest whenever prompted for dialogue. Pecker finds their passions endearing & documents them within his own sole interest: photography. When his art takes off to an unlikely notoriety in New York City, he assumes everyone championing his photographs is similarly celebrating the beauty of his subjects. Instead, they’re ironically laughing at his “culturally challenged” family & friends for their perceived tackiness. Once this Big City hipster irony is revealed as a real world evil, the film eventually takes the form of a good-natured revenge tale. Pecker invites his new Art World “friends” to Baltimore for his latest show, where they’re given a taste of their own medicine as the derogatory subject of his photographs, a source of mockery. They’re briefly gawked at by Baltimore weirdos as the true freaks for once, until Pecker unites both sides for a climactic party where everyone shares indulgences in each other’s obsessions & collectively cheer, “To the end of irony!” The point being made in that celebration is admirable and I love that Waters took his audience to task for looking down on his weirdo friends as inhuman curiosities instead of genuinely joining in the celebration of their obsessions. The comedy just doesn’t feel as sharp or, frankly, as dirty as it should to match the laugh riot heights of earlier triumphs. Besides a few details involving strip clubs & gay bars (of which The Fudge Palace feels like an obvious ode to New Orleans staple The Corner Pocket), the film didn’t feel very much interested in its own subjects, at least not with the same obsessive intensity they were interested in things like candy & pubic hair. It seems in making a film about art & obsessions, Waters somewhat lost track of funneling his own passionate obsessions into his art.

Cecil B. Demented, the 2000 follow-up to Pecker, feels even more creatively exhausted. Waters shifts his focus slightly from the irony of Art World assholes to the slow death of modern cinema, which he sees as being completely drained of the obsessive artistic passions of his earlier work. Here, the director sides with the artsy types he previously lampooned in order to take aim at the corporate business end of film production. In an opening credits sequence that’s only become more relevant as the years roll on, movie theater marquees are overrun by sequels, franchise titles like Star Trek & Star Wars, comedies starring disposable knuckleheads like Pauly Shore, and art films dubbed from their original languages. As Pecker toasted, “To the end of irony!,” Cecil B. Demented cries, “Death to those who support mainstream cinema!” This is essentially a heist picture where a “teenage” gang (including early appearances from Michael Shannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Adrian Grenier) kidnaps a famed Hollywood starlet (Melanie Griffith, who has no trouble slipping into the role of Terrible Actress) and forces her into a guerilla film production that often borders on outright terrorism. Literally wearing their influences on their sleeves in the forms of tattooed names like William Castle, David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Kenneth Anger, they attempt to disrupt business-as-usual Hollywood filmmaking by bringing artistic obsession back to the forefront of the industry. There’s an unfortunate irony in this intense focus on authenticity, as the movie doesn’t feel nearly as dangerous or as personal as Waters’s own past in guerilla filmmaking. His murderous cinephiles are certainly silly, but you get the sense that he’s on their side, while still failing to live up to their impossible ideals. “Technique is nothing but failed style,” is a great line in isolation, but I’m not sure what it means in a work that’s Waters’s least funny, least stylish, and most obedient adherence to the mainstream technique of its time: the nu-metal Dark Ages.

By the mid-90s, John Waters’s outsider aesthetic had become an essential part of mainstream filmmaking thanks the gross-out comedy boom that followed the success of There’s Something About Mary. There’s an “Okay, what now?” quality to Pecker & Cecil B. Demented that might be a direct result of that assimilation. With a sensibility he was on the ground floor of establishing now the mainstream standard and his own personal obsessions already documented for infamy in previous works, Waters had to find new purpose for his art in a time mired in one of our worst modern pop culture slumps. I admire his ambition in tackling the commercial end of art production in Cecil B. Demented & the earnestness of the art consumer in Pecker, even if I believe those films to represent his worst creative period. Not only is it a half-assed put-down for me to call out a film or two for being the worst releases from my favorite director; this story also has a happy ending in John Waters eventually getting his groove back back in the excellent 2004 sex comedy A Dirty Shame, his most recent (and most underrated) film to date. Having proven himself in so many other titles that transcend these nu-metal era doldrums, Waters’s Art World potshots are worth having around if not only for giving voice to the director’s take on the art & commerce compromises of his industry. Characters describing Pecker’s photography persona as “a humane Diane Arbus” while Cindy Sherman (playing herself) walks around art galleries offering Valium to children or a dangerously horny Michael Shannon shouting “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls!” are worthwhile indulgences for their own sake, even if they don’t match the obsessive passion of documenting Divine & Edith Massey’s exploits in the Dreamlanders era. I may wish that the final products were a little funnier & more artistically distinct, but I love that Waters took the time to dismantle art world pretension & empties commercialism once he was done vilifying suburban normies.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

 

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Paying too close of attention to reviews & hype surrounding a film can sometimes lead you to miss out. Besides its release date coinciding a little too closely to Mardi Gras, I had put catching up with the latest Coen Brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar!, on the backburner due to the film’s somewhat tepid response at the box office. Hail, Caesar! is flopping hard right now, failing to find a significantly sized audience despite the prominence of Big Name movie stars in its advertising & the Coens’ loyal (though not gigantic) fanbase. Many major publication critics are also seemingly lukewarm on the film, often citing it an overstuffed mixed bag. That lack of enthusiasm & no basic knowledge of the film’s plot lead me to the theater with essentially no expectations, but Hail, Caesar! floored me anyway. Honestly, if I don’t see a better movie in the cinema all year I’ll still be perfectly happy. It was that much of a delight. I should have gotten to the theater a hell of a lot sooner.

Hail, Caesar! is firmly in the highly respectable medium of art about the nature of art. More specifically, it’s a movie about the movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens have looked back to the Old Hollywood studio system as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. Packed with theological & political debate/diatribes and a sprawling cast of both Big Name movie stars & That Guy character actors, the film sounds like a lot more effort than it actually is. The plot is, in essence, the day in the life of a “fixer” for a major Hollywood film studio in the 1950s. Imagine if Pulp Fiction was centered on Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character instead of the organized crime ring he was keeping steady & his work was in major film production instead of the murder & drug trade (on top of being oddly sweet instead of quietly terrifying). Josh Brolin’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix, provides such an anchor for Hail, Caesar! as a whirlwind of film production snafus swirl around him. Rampant addiction, a kidnapped star, unwanted pregnancy, secret Communist societies, gossip column vultures, and all kinds of trouble on the studio lot’s various sets turn Mannix’s typical workday into a laughable, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a testament to the Coens’ screenwriting talents that the film feels so smooth & effortless while Mannix’s webs become increasingly tangled and the general tone is a mix of subtle humor & broad farce instead of plot fatigue.

A lot of movies are effortlessly funny, though. What’s special about Hail, Caesar! is the way it perfectly captures Old Hollywood’s ghost. It reminded me a lot of the feeling of seeing Georges Méliès’s work recreated so vividly in the theater during Scorcese’s Hugo, except that Hail, Caesar! covered a much wider range of genres & filmmakers from a completely different era. Every classic Old Hollywood genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, Roman & religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded so it’s somewhat shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Besides the breathtaking visual achievements, it’s impressive how many other aspects of Old Hollywood cinema the film manages to include, both in its “real” setting & in its fake film shoots: close attention to lighting, a briefcase MacGuffin, sets that look like backdrop paintings, the threat that television will destroy the movie business, reclusive editors who act like chain-smoking psychos, talent that’s owned by the studio in what essentially amounts to indentured servitude, a sea of white faces in a world where everyone else has been locked out, etc. Even the smallest turns of phrase like “motion picture teleplay” & character names like George Clooney’s leading man actor Baird Whitlock feel perfectly in tune with the vibe of the era whether or not they’re poking fun at its inherent quaintness.

Speaking of Clooney’s wonderful turn as Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is at heart an ensemble cast comedy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any exact MVPs among the film’s long list of cameos & supporting players (Brolin undeniably takes the honor overall). Channing Tatum continues his nonstop winning streak here, dressing like a sailor & leading one of the most wholesomely filthy song & dance numbers you’re ever likely to see. Scarlett Johansson looks peacefully at home as a classic Hollywood starlet in a mermaid costume & hilariously disrupts the illusion with a brassy performance that allows her to refer to her flipper as a “fish ass.” Following up his delicately winning performance in Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes continues to prove himself as a stealthily comic force to be reckoned with. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich threatens to steal the show with an “Aw, shucks” cowboy routine & the similarly obscure Emily Beecham is a near dead-ringer for The Red Shoes/Peeping Tom star Moira Shearer (and I mean that as the highest praise). And all that’s just scratching the surface of how attractive everyone looks in this film, how effective the smallest of roles come across, and the sheer number of recognizable faces on display here.

So what’s keeping a smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous film like Hail, Caesar! from pulling in ticket sales? Who’s to say? I was a good three or four decades younger than most members of the audience where I watched the film (although it should be noted that most young folks were probably watching Deadpool that weekend), so maybe it’s missing an appeal to key money-making demographics? Maybe the advertising didn’t sell the more gorgeous end of its visuals hard enough, so a lot of folks are calmly waiting for it to reach VOD? I have no answers, really. I will, however, defend the film against the accusation that it’s overstuffed or unfocused. Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of a world-weary man who operates in an overstuffed, unfocused industry, so the various plotlines could be perceived as overwhelming as you try to make sense of them in retrospect, but on the screen they play with the confident poise of an expert juggler.

Like I said, Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.

-Brandon Ledet

Introducing: The Swampflix Canon

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Although we’ve fairly easy critics (especially when it comes to trash cinema) & have reviewed hundred of films since we first launched in January, it’s been interesting to see how few & how disparate our selections have been that exceed a four star rating. Over the last eight months we’ve given only two dozen films a rating of 4.5 of 5 stars, and they’re as wildly varied as a mindless 80s slasher flick, a Paul Rudd superhero movie, a pro wrestling action comedy starring famous monsters, and a Björk concert film. We’re turning out to be a wildly goofy & oddly dissonant bunch and it’s starting to show in the movies we profess our love for.

In light of this growing list of targets for our critical gushing, we’ve begun to collect our reviews that exceed a four star rating on a page we’re calling The Swampflix Canon. All 24 reviews that have met this one criteria so far are listed in alphabetical order on the new page for easy access & I’m certain more will be added shortly. If you’re interested in a starting point for where to dive in, here’s the list of the nine titles that we have awarded a five star rating so far: Beyond the Black RainbowThe Duke of Burgundy, Monster Brawl, Paris Is Burning, Peeping Tom, Pieces, Possession, Profondo rosso (aka Deep Red), and What We Do in the ShadowsThe rest of the list can be found here.

As always, Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

Casting By (2013)

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One of the most disingenuous things about the way we talk about cinema is the idea of the auteur. Directors have so much input on so many aspects of each production that it’s tempting (or at least convenient) to discuss a film’s merits based on the work of a single person, when it really takes hundreds of contributors to complete a picture. Films are one of the most collaborative forms of art our there, requiring the blood, sweat, and tears of a wide range of people to achieve success. There are many roles in film production that don’t get their proper due, but according to the documentary Casting By the most egregiously overlooked position of all is that of the casting director.

Casting By follows the history of the casting director credit in the film industry by focusing on the career of Marion Dougherty, a legend within the field. Among countless other household names, Dougherty can be credited for at least partially helping to launch the careers of Warren Beatty, James Dean, Robert Duvall, John Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Peter Falk, James Caan, John Travolta, Gene Wilder, Glenn Close, and the list rolls on infinitely. Due to the endless list of celebrities who owe at the very least a kind word or two about Dougherty for helping get their foot in the door, Casting By is packed to the gills with great little Hollywood anecdotes about an industry that’s known for refusing to change its ways (including an especially raw one from Richard Donner that had me on the verge of tears) & a woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. Dougherty not only has an immense talent for spotting potential stars in the raw, but she also stubbornly refuses to accept the roles women & people of color are relegated to in Hollywood’s margins. Casting By is not a particularly flashy documentary in any formal way, but it is one that serves the noble purpose of preserving an often overlooked legacy on film.

One of Casting By‘s strongest stances is a call for an Academy Award category to honor the work of the casting director & it makes a pretty strong case. There’s even a quote from Marty Scorsese, who has worked closely with Marion Dougherty many times in the past, early in the film that claims that casting is more than 90% of making a movie. It’s hard to argue with that point, especially when the film delves into the early days of studio contracts when on-retainer actors would play parts whether they were right for them or not, just because they were there. Dougherty came up through the time of New Hollywood, helping to define what it was exactly that a casting director does. She would help steer directors & studios into finding the right actor for the job, instead of the more traditional typecasting of actors based on physical appearance alone.

It’s a shame that there still isn’t a casting director Oscar to this day & Dougherty hasn’t at the very least been awarded an honorary Acadamy Award herself. Although Marion Dougherty has struggled for decades to earn the respect that casting directors deserve & to break up the boys club of film production in general, she has received few accolades for her work. It’s only right that Casting By serves as a document of her legacy, laying out in plain, simple words just how important she has been to the shape & climate of American film & just how vital the role of casting director that she pioneered is to the motion picture landscape.

-Brandon Ledet