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Berlinale 2014 The Better Angels

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Berlinale 2014: The Better Angels
Berlinale 2014: The Better Angels

A cursory IMDb search shows that The Better Angels’s writer-director, A.J. Edwards, worked as an editorial intern on Terrence Malick’s The New World, one of five editors on To the Wonder, and as a “key artistic consultant” on The Tree of Life. It’s not quite right to say that The Better Angels exhibits Malick’s influence; it plays more like a student film assignment in copping another filmmaker’s style from stem to stern.

Set in the Indiana backwoods where Abraham Lincoln (newcomer Braydon Denney) lived as a child, The Better Angels takes a demonstrably Malickian approach to American mythmaking, locating the core of the 16th American president’s eminent integrity in his hardscrabble upbringing. Both embraced and tested by his salt-of-the-earth father (Jason Clarke) and doted on by his loving mother (Brit Marling), young Abe is shown to learn the values that would come to define his character, at least in the American historical memory: reason, self-control, morality, empathy—those titular “better angels of our nature” that he would index in his first inaugural address. As he works the land and, eventually, goes to school, there are intimations that the young man is meant for better things.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Glenn Heath Jr.’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Glenn Heath Jr.’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Glenn Heath Jr.’s Top 10 Films of All Time

It’s hard not to get a little nostalgic while trying to determine one’s favorite films of all time. Memories of first viewings come flooding back, even thoughts of long lost friends who shared those moments with you. In this sense, these 10 films have sculpted my life as a cinephile, programmer, and writer, some even in ways that I’m still discovering years later. While their initial impact was undeniably potent, each one continues to influence how I think about cinema as art, entertainment, and a mirror to human nature. If narrowing this list to 10 entries has taught me anything, it’s that great movies evolve over time, and as I’ve grown older each one has become more personal, more essential to my existence. Not surprisingly, many are concerned with the detailed process of aging, or more specifically the juxtaposition of physical deterioration and emotional vitality. Others even dynamically examine heightened memory and inevitable, sometimes forceful change. But all of my choices waver between visions of lyrical, horrific, and sometimes heart-wrenching transition. They are keys to my decidedly intimate canon, one when taken as a whole acts as a reminder that movies aren’t always everything in this fragile life.

Oscar Prospects: The Tree of Life

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Oscar Prospects: The Tree of Life
Oscar Prospects: The Tree of Life

Few would argue against The Tree of Life being one of the very best films of the year, but it remains the biggest wild card of awards season, a massively beloved masterpiece whose impressionistic style and ostensible inaccessibility have presumably prevented it from surging forward as a sure thing. Since claiming the Palme d’Or (which does mean something despite the common lack of Cannes/Oscar overlap), the film has landed on scads of top ten lists and picked up Best Picture wins and nominations from the BFCA, the OFCS, the Chicago Film Critics, the Detroit Film Critics, the Houston Film Critics, the San Diego Film Critics, the San Francisco Film Critics, the Toronto Film Critics, and the Gotham Independents. It has not, however, managed to declare itself an all-but-certain holder of a Best Picture slot a la The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, War Horse, Moneyball, The Help, and Midnight in Paris. Its complete Golden Globes shutout is hardly surprising, ditto its SAG snubs, but yesterday’s diss from the Producer’s Guild was a bit more unexpected, and a lot more crucial in terms of its overall Oscar hopes. Even with all the resounding support, can The Tree of Life stay in the big race?

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.

I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.

I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?

Against Consensus: An Interview with Charles Taylor

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Against Consensus: An Interview with Charles Taylor
Against Consensus: An Interview with Charles Taylor

[Editor’s Note: Today The House Next Door publishes its first piece by a guest contributor, Jeremiah Kipp, whose writing on movies has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications. Kipp interviewed Charles Taylor, an influential and compulsively readable film critic for Salon, after he was fired from the online magazine last year. He can now be read in the New York Times, the New York Observer and my home, the Star-Ledger, where he writes a monthly pop culture column called “High and Low.” A transcript of their conversation follows.]

Charles Taylor was dismissed from his duties as a Salon critic in February, 2005. At the time, Salon editor Joan Walsh chalked up the decision to simple economics: their publication had just 22 editorial employees and could not justify employing three film critics. This was disappointing news for regular Salon subscribers and a harbinger of declining standards. Although Taylor’s colleagues Stephanie Zacharek and Andrew O’Hehir continue to offer insightful cultural analysis and film criticism, a casual perusal of Salon post-Taylor reveals feature articles that are elaborately disguised press releases pandering to the studios. Gossip, box office reports and hype don’t address whether a film has merit as art or entertainment. The latter was Taylor’s specialty; he called it like he saw it, often employing the sorts of provocative turns of phrase that spark arguments in parking lots.

Just Beautiful

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Just Beautiful
Just Beautiful

On the desk beside my keyboard lies one of my most prized possessions: a ticket stub from the January 21, 9:30 p.m. showing of The New World at BAM-Rose Cinemas in downtown Brooklyn.

At this showing of this movie, at this time on this day, in this theater, in this borough of this city, I bore witness to American commercial cinema’s ability to astound, move and inspire masses of people—an ability that reached its fullest realization during the heyday of the blockbuster art film, the 1970s, but has rarely been exercised since.

The history of American studio blockbusters includes a handful of indisputable high watermarks, moments when entertainment and art merged to create not just a hit, but an origin point for new ways of thinking about, and making, popular cinema; a rallying point for anyone who still believes in the blockbuster’s ability—and responsibility—to deliver more than escapism; a secular house of worship for anyone who prizes ambition, mystery, and beauty over familiarity and neatness; a transformative experience that can be had for the price of a movie ticket, and that anyone who ever called him or herself a movie lover must seize now, or forever regret having missed.

The New World is a new watermark. It is a $50 million epic poem made with Time Warner’s money; it is an American creation myth that recontextualizes our past, present and future as fable, as opera, as verse. It is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it.

It is nothing less than a generation-defining event.