Must-See Films

powellThanks to modern internet technology (soon to be outdated), I have compiled the two previously posted MUST-SEE FILMS lists into one. The difference here is that, thanks to and its host, Eli Dragen, you can now click on the poster art for each film and it will self-calculate.

For me, what’s interesting about this exercise is not only counting how many of these “must-see” films you have already seen, but how many you have not. What a potential treasure-trove of cinematic delights that awaits each and every one of us.

Be warned: the list is long. 890 films, to be exact. Excessive? Perhaps, but we all wanted to create a list that would be far more comprehensive than the little lists floating here and there and everywhere around the internet. This is a true film-lover’s list.

Here’s what we wrote about it on the Listchallenges page itself:

This is a list created by 6 self-proclaimed Film-lovers and/or filmmakers who also share a strange love of making lists. So we decided to combine those two things to offer a “Must-See” film list for the true film enthusiast.

There have been other film lists passed around the internet, but we felt they were often such contemporary, mainstream lists of films that they, well, quite simply didn’t do justice to the art and entertainment of cinema. We also wanted to acknowledge films that were remakes, originals and/or alternate cuts. And while there are TONS of great films NOT mentioned here, the ones that ARE mentioned certainly show a wide range of tastes, styles, genres and interpretations of “Must-see.”

No film list can please or reflect the tastes of everybody, but we assure you that this list might at least challenge you and, we hope, open you up to some films that you may not have even known existed.

Be warned: This is a big list.

We hope you enjoy and happy viewing!

Click here:

The names of the 6 list contributors are: Janice Findley, Paul Hansen, Karl Holzheimer, Caren McCaleb, Any Norman, Hal Masonberg.

Must-See Films



When I first saw GRAVITY, I saw it in 2D. Or as it’s better known, NOT in 3D. I was told by friends who enjoyed the film and knew that I was not a big fan of the usual 3D experience, that GRAVITY need not be seen in 3D, that it would work just as well without it. Being that they never saw the film in 2D, there was no way they could have understood what a vapid experience GRAVITY would be for me in 2D.

Since that time, I’ve been told again and again by other fans of the film that the 3D experience of GRAVITY is essential; that the film cannot be separated from the experience. The film was made to be seen on a big screen in 3D and any lesser experience is not a proper reflection on the film or the filmmakers.

They were right.

Watching GRAVITY in 3D was a completely different experience. Shots that seemed pointless, gimmicky and empty in 2D, came alive in 3D and suddenly Cuarón’s visual choices made sense, they were effective. I felt a deep sense of vertigo watching the film in 3D that was barely even hinted at in 2D. Wow. I sat there thinking to myself, “Maybe I was wrong…”

Let me go back for a moment and explain why I don’t usually respond well to 3D. What happens is this: I find myself so caught up in the 3D experience that it takes me much longer to actually get into the story; I find myself far less attentive to the narrative and characters, dialogue comes and goes, I catch bits and pieces, but my brain is too busy processing the three-dimensional experience. The same was true with GRAVITY. I was so taken with the feeling of being in outer space, that most of what they were doing and saying slipped past me. Thankfully, having already seen the film in 2D, I already knew. In 2D, I followed the plot, the dialogue, relied on the characters to take me on my journey. And the truth of the matter is, for me, the story and characters in GRAVITY are not strong enough to carry this film. The 3D is. But only to a point. By the halfway mark, after the initial “Wow” factor had worn off, I realized that I was still left with the same poorly-written, empty experience that had been the 2D journey. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ageless observation has never been displayed more poignantly and aggressively than in GRAVITY:

”Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing.” –Gillo Pontecorvo

GRAVITY is the most effective use of 3D I have ever seen, seconded only by Wim Wenders’ PINA. The difference here is that PINA is about something. GRAVITY, on the other hand, seems to have nothing to say, nothing else to offer BUT the 3D. Why can’t we use this amazing technology to create an experience that is satisfying as a whole? Instead, critics and audiences are tricked into thinking they are seeing an incredible film when they are, in fact, seeing an incredible and creative use of an advanced 3D technology. But at the end of the day, Cuarón’s status as a storyteller remains diminished. With the exception of A LITTLE PRINCESS, Cuarón, for me, has proven to be a director who leaves me feeling empty, oftentimes gypped. There’s a lot of impressive camerawork in terms of long-takes and well-choreographed shots, but what lies beneath those shots and takes is nothing more than thin air. Lift the top off and the air just dissipates into nothingness. Gillo was right. In the case of GRAVITY, the amazing 3D hides an emptiness that just keeps getting bigger.

Oddly, in most Cuarón films, there is a moment toward the end when, despite my growing feeling of disappointment, he sets up what I believe to be the most perfect and daring ending. Almost as if the entire structure of the film were tailor-made for this moment, this conclusion. And as I watch it unfold, I think to myself that if the film ends now, if it ends this way, it will make up for all the other “lesser” moments that had been disappointing me so much. In fact, it may allow those seemingly lesser moments to now reveal themselves as having intent, perhaps even a poignancy that simply requires patience and trust in the filmmaker. But Cuarón takes these moments, builds them to the penultimate edge… Then tosses them away.


Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, CHILDREN OF MEN, these films have amazing potential endings that are set up to leave the audience with questions, to allow them to be active participants, to give them something of value to take with them after the film has ended, to create a lasting and provocative experience. But Cuarón, time and again, dangles these potentially great cinematic moments in front of us, only to snatch them away and give in to what seems to be a fear-based response (Spoiler Alert: Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: she acted this way cause she knew she was dying of cancer. CHILDREN OF MEN: Yes, there is a ship after all).

GRAVITY reeks of fear to me. (More Spoilers) When Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, gives her final speech — that over-written, over-produced Hollywood moment when films feel the need to have their heroes spell out everything in verbal terms — Cuarón STILL manages to create a moment that, if he’d allowed himself, would have left the audience with something to genuinely chew on. After proclaiming to the universe (with a seriously bombastic score to back her) that there are only two ways this can go: either Stone will find herself at home tonight with one hell of a story to tell, OR she’ll burn up in the atmosphere and that, either way, it’s gonna be one hell of a ride… Cuarón had an amazing opportunity to leave us, the audience, out in space as Ryan Stone quickly descended toward Earth in a fiery ball. Does she make it? What do you think? It seems pointless and dissatisfying to me to have Stone pose the question only to have it answered 30 seconds later! Had Cuarón taken the opportunity he himself set up, he would have created an experience that actually had something of value to offer us; he would have allowed us to be introspective, to do exactly what a film like this — a film about human beings moving through the vastness and cold of space with their home far below, so close and yet so out of reach — should do: make us think, make us feel, make us ask questions of ourselves, of our experiences as human beings living on a planet out in the middle of… what, exactly? Instead, Cuarón takes us back to Earth, he doesn’t leave us in space, he doesn’t leave us with one single, solitary question, he asks NOTHING of us as an audience and brings the roller-coaster safely back to Earth so that we can all step off and go back to our lives unscathed, unchanged. Sure, we get to watch Stone crawl out of the primordial goo, like ancient ancestors before her, to a world that has lost its connection to satellite technology, but this is a tepid replacement for the gift that almost was.


For me, the entire film feels like a lesson in not taking risks. The 3D experience is so convincing, so effective, that one gets the sense that the George Clooney character, Matt Kowalski , is there, not so much to keep Sandra Bullock from panicking, but to keep the audience from panicking. Nothing fazes him. He’s fun and happy, listens to cowboy music and is always debonair and charming. He’ll take care of us, ease us through this harrowing cinematic 3D experience. Thank god Cuarón finally takes Kowalski away. Of course, he goes — not just willingly — but cracking jokes, listening to music and admiring the view. Why, this isn’t so scary or existentially frightening after all… But wait… Cuarón suddenly brings Kowalski back again in what is one of the most obvious and unnecessary bits of writing I’ve witnessed in ages. I was so happy to have gotten rid of this character who stood between me and an actual experience, an actual emotion. Alas… From this point forward, the story descends with frightening rapidity into predictable, overwrought simplicity. Unimaginative writing slides headlong into pablum and not even the amazing 3D can hide the vacuity that is the story and characters of GRAVITY.


DOWNTON ABBEY Season 3: When A Writer’s Hand Is Forced


downton_abbey_key_art_season_3_a_pI won’t go too in-depth about the third season of DOWNTON ABBEY as I actually found most of it to be very entertaining and satisfying. But this third season introduced a few moments that could be seen as the ever-feared missteps a series can take when it overstays its welcome or when popularity seeps in as a guiding force in how the story unfolds.

DOWNTON has quickly become a household name since I first watched what seemed to be just another BBC mini-series that the vast majority of Americans had not only never heard of, but were quite likely NEVER to hear of, like so many fantastic British shows to come before it and live in relative obscurity here in the States. But DOWNTON ABBEY hit a nerve and its popularity has since soared on this side of the pond. And while I’m happy for the show’s success, that kind of popularity always fills me with a little dread as well. I won’t lie. Sometimes I like good shows to remain a bit of a well-kept secret. Selfish, I know. But then I can also continue complaining about how the best shows never find an audience and how stupid American viewers are over all. But then a show like DOWNTON gains a measure of real success and either A) I have to stop complaining about the dullness of Americans or B) the show has to lower its standards to keep its new audience entertained.

When I read that Shirley MacLaine was gonna be on the show, I thought my fears had been realized. Now don’t misunderstand, I love Shirley MacLaine. But her presence suggested the possibility of this fine BBC drama placating its newfound American audience with a more “familiar” face (Elizabeth McGovern, though American, has not been a familiar face on these shores for a number of years, while Ms. MacLaine has managed to embed herself in our continued social consciousness). Thankfully and allaying my fears, MacLaine’s role on DOWNTON was short and sweet. She didn’t try and eat the scenery or overwhelm with her presence. No, in fact, she fit right in and was most welcome both in her arrival and departure. I thought it was all just right and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Then there was the big mid-season surprise. The sudden death of Sybil. I admired this choice. Though she was my favorite of the sisters (and the one I had the biggest mini-series crush on), I always like when a main character is killed off. It often forces a show and its viewers to deal with a particular set of experiences that they have not had to deal with before. That gives it resonance. Something to talk about, something to remember, both emotionally and structurally. But there was a lazy bone to be found in the storyline surrounding Sybil’s death. The much-decorated doctor who insists that Sybil’s symptoms are nothing more than those naturally found in pregnancy is such a pompous, unlikeable fool of a man that I would guess 99% of the audience knew that our dear country doctor was indeed correct and that Sybil’s life was in danger. Why choose to paint these two in such black and white terms? Why not offer a bit more credibility to the doctor responsible for Sybil’s death? Why not allow us, the audience, to share in the difficulty of the life and death decisions being made? Perhaps Mr. Fellowes believed he was doing just that. Or, perhaps, he didn’t want to. I don’t have the answer. All I know is that I was thrilled Sybil died (from a story perspective, that is), but disappointed that the events surrounding it hadn’t been painted in grayer strokes so that her death may have been even more of a surprise and may have engaged me by allowing me to partake in some measure of responsibility. As it stands, the writing allowed me to get ahead of the characters in what was to unfold. But all in all, this was a mildly disappointing and fleeting moment surrounded by so many wonderful moments that I was able to push it aside with relative ease and not have it negatively impact my feelings about this extraordinarily engaging show.

Julian Fellowes

Then the Season 3 finale arrived. Now let me just start by saying that I’m okay with Matthew’s death. Conceptually. Remember, I like when main characters die. Particularly beloved ones. But this particular death felt incredibly inorganic to me. And it’s not simply because actor Dan Stevens chose to leave the show and forced scribe and creator Julian Fellowes into a story corner. Certainly that plays a role (and I think will actually breed some ill-will toward Mr. Stevens though, for myself, I hope his personal choice leads him to a successful career), but it’s in the handling of Matthew’s death that I take issue with here.

Viewers across the globe have complained that there was simply too much similarity between Matthew’s death and Sybil’s. Both died following the birth of their child. Both were in loving relationships that were damn near perfect for those characters, making the loss that much greater. It worked wonderfully for Sybil’s death. But for Matthew’s… I could feel the writer struggling. For me, giving Matthew and Mary their final moment together to once again profess their love for one another and for Matthew to bask in the glow of his newborn son before driving off to his inevitable demise was just too much for me. It felt manufactured. Insincere.

Now I have a friend who believes I’m in the minority in feeling dissatisfaction with allowing Matthew’s relationship to end with such happy/tragic perfection. He feels that most people wanted to see/needed to see some measure of resolution before such a tragic event. But in reading comments online and talking with other friends, I’m thinking that my sense of dissatisfaction might be the overriding sensation being felt in living rooms across the globe. Death is a dirty business and Matthew wasn’t just another character in DOWNTON ABBEY. He was our guide through the world of DOWNTON ABBEY. The upstairs of Downton, that is, just as Bates is our guide downstairs.

Julian Fellowes had set up the near perfect end for himself, then chose not to take it: Matthew wants to leave with Mary. She tells him “No, I’ll be fine” and returns home without him. For me, that decision ending with them never seeing one another again and Matthew never seeing his son would have had the gravitas and tragedy earned by Matthew’s character. As it stands, I feel as if I were gently lead into Matthew’s death, as if Mr. Fellowes were afraid of the forced-decision to prematurely rid the show of Matthew and therefore second-guessed the audience’s reaction. Matthew’s endless profession of love for Mary seemed overwrought and inorganic; it was hinting too strongly at something else, setting up the scenes to come with an uncharacteristically heavy hand. Perhaps Mr. Fellowes was hyper-aware that this episode was going to air on Christmas Day and felt some measure of guilt in having to kill off Matthew (and possibly spoil Christmas a la Scrooge or the Grinch) and so chose to balance this fated tragedy with an extra helping of gaiety and joy.

For me, Matthew’s death should have been devastating, not just surprising. Unfortunately, I felt less devastation and more confusion. For a moment, it felt like I was watching a different show. Try as I might to feel better about it, I just couldn’t. Some other friends commented that they too had felt it a bit awkward and inorganic, but felt better about it once they’d learned that Mr. Fellowes had been forced into killing off Mathhew’s character. For me, sadly, that realization only highlighted just how inorganic Matthew’s death actually was.

There may have been no way to make Matthew’s death intrinsic to Season 3 as it clearly wasn’t Fellowes’ wish to end that character’s journey here. He had much more in store for Matthew. And perhaps that is why Fellowes exhibited what I consider an uncharacteristically unsteady hand in fashioning Matthew’s demise.

One thing is certain: writing is difficult. Incredibly so, as anyone who has attempted to do so knows. And Mr. Fellowes has certainly more than earned his right to stumble slightly, though he may not personally see it as such. But for me, Matthew’s death could have been a strong and defining moment in the DOWNTON ABBEY universe. Instead, for me, its a slight blemish on an otherwise incredibly engaging show.

DOWNTON ABBEY Season 3: When A Writer’s Hand Is Forced

DARK KNIGHT RISES Viewers Mistake Conservative Cinema For Liberal Agenda

Dark Knight 1

Spoiler Alert!

The most amazing thing to me is that people saw THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and accused it of being Liberal Propaganda because the “villain’s” name was Bane. Did they watch the film?!!! THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the single biggest, most overt piece of Republican propaganda to come out of Hollywood in decades. The villain’s name is spelled BANE, not because it’s a thinly disguised mask for Bain, but because the villain is a plague, a pestilence, a burden. “The Bane of my existence.”

I was also surprised by how many people hated this film. I thought it was the best of the trilogy, richest in character and far more socially, politically and morally complex than any movie of its kind in generations. I found it vastly entertaining and immensely disappointing in its severely Right-wing leanings.

dark-knight-rises1Nolan claims there is no political thought or agenda to the film. Say it enough times and maybe people will believe you. This film has politics oozing out of every pore and crevice.  And unlike the lazy schmucks a la Rush Limbaugh who accuse the film of being Liberal Propaganda simply because they don’t have the patience or brain-capacity to follow the actual plot of the film itself, anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention will realize that the whole Batman series has been a big promoter of conservative thinking. Remember that illegal surveillance system Batman builds and uses despite Morgan Freeman’s objections? The one he “needed” to use to get the job done? For the good of the people, the masses? Even though it was morally and legally wrong? Patriot Act, anyone?

Well, now Nolan’s “villain” seems to have more in common with Occupy Wall Streeters than he has with Bain Capital. Or the Tea Party. Joke’s on us. His “revolution” against the rich fails. Though he frightens the poor and huddled masses into doing his bidding and sentencing the rich to death, he is ultimately leading his “followers” to their own demise. He’s “using” them. He and his followers “demonize” the rich when, in fact, the film suggests by the end that the rich are the ones best equipped to save us, to protect us. He attacks Wall Street, for Christ’s sake! And in doing so, Bane cruelly drains the rich of their bank accounts and leaves them penniless. But when one character suggests they can afford it, another reminds us that it hurts everyone in the long run. And the rich aren’t really helpless are they? No. Through sheer will and belief, they rise up against their attackers, with pride, with dignity, heads held high, so they can go and live “good” lives, “clean” lives, honorable, straight, American lives.

Bain Capital is known for putting people out of work. Buying companies, increasing their debt, paying out handsomely to Bain itself while closing most of those businesses and displacing workers. Bane, in the film, offers those out-of-work, lower-class citizens a place to gather, to thrive, to work. Very little Bain about it. Meanwhile, Batman has developed a new source of energy that he is afraid to share. Much like the argument that we shouldn’t be sharing nuclear resources with Iran. “In the hands of the wrong person…” That person turns out to be Miranda (along with Bane), who gets control over the new energy source under false pretenses (wants to develop safe energy), THEN turns it into a bomb. That makes her a terrorist. And liberals have been accused by conservatives of being too lenient on potential terrorists. The argument with Iran is that they are building the means with which to build a bomb under the guise of wanting to create safe energy for their country. Sound familiar? Many conservatives, both here and abroad, think we should stop them now and not wait until it’s too late. Obama is the one who is accused of letting them “get too close” to having a nuclear bomb. Add to all this the fact that it is a Russian helping them complete their task.

Then there’s Commissioner Gordon who is accused of being a “war-time” commissioner. Because there’s no longer a “visible war” going on, he is considered outdated by his superiors who want to replace him. It turns out, of course, that Gordon is right and the city –the world– is attacked and his war-time thinking is now much needed. Always has been. But the public at large had been lured into a false sense of security. This is VERY much in sync with accusations that the Obama Administration is being too lenient, is not doing enough to prevent terrorism, wanting to cut the military budget, close Guantanamo, etc.

Catwoman. She ultimately joins forces with Batman, doesn’t she? And Batman’s comments about “no guns, no killing?” Catwoman gets the final word on that when she saves his sorry ass with a gun and some killing (of Bane, misunderstood leader of the OWS movement who is more motivated by misplaced anger, hatred and repression –slavery?– than by any real care for the people) and then lets us know that she’ll be keeping her guns and not buying into Batman’s gentler philosophy. Nice try, Caped Crusader.

great-marion-cotillard-was-talia-al-ghul-1And remember, Bane’s demise is his bleeding heart for that poor little girl he saved from poverty and repression, who grew up to be rich and powerful out of spite, and who uses her new power to finish her father’s work. Eerily familiar to accusations of Obama wanting to take on his father’s “anti-colonialism crusade.” Remember, she’s the one who pretends to be our friend, –so smart, so articulate– then, quite literally, STABS us in the back!

And it’s Bane who insists imprisoned criminals are actually repressed individuals who should be freed. Again, a conservative interpretation of a common liberal agenda to end the death penalty, close Guantanamo, and be more “lenient” on criminals they don’t see as hazardous to the public at large (but who are, in fact, represented as an angry mob of killers and thieves who bring lawlessness to the streets).

All this said, there is enough acknowledgement of the flaws in today’s Republican Party and some of the choices that have been made. It’s not ALL black and white. There are some very interesting grey areas and that’s part of what makes the film so damned fascinating and conversation-worthy. Conversation-worthy! THAT must be why no one likes the film! Hell, who wants to be challenged to think? Thought-provoking as I found it and as entertained as I was, I also feel a bit dirty as the film clearly lands with a vision that far more strongly favors a conservative course of action. For example, the film acknowledges that people are out of work. But it suggests that their desperation and anger has led them to follow the wrong path. When Bruce Wayne is left penniless but still gets to keep his mansion, it’s his “enemy'” that comments when the rich suffer they don’t “really” suffer. But it’s Bruce Wayne who we sympathize with. If he loses his home, the Bat Cave, he cannot help us. We don’t want to see him lose any more than he already has. The film does a good job in acknowledging other viewpoints, courses of reason, it understands where the anger comes from, why people are disillusioned, but it suggests that the conclusions of those people –their chosen course of action– is ultimately wrong, misguided, and dangerous.

To call this film Liberal Propaganda is to have not actually watched the film at all. However, THOSE accusations against the film exist and persist. And as a result,  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES elicits an undesired and –I’m willing to bet– unexpected effect in that it unintentionally points out the ridiculousness and stupidity, the sheer lack of intelligent thought that goes into the accusations made by most of the Conservative Party’s loudest voices.

They don’t even recognize an ally when they see one.


DARK KNIGHT RISES Viewers Mistake Conservative Cinema For Liberal Agenda

Great American Films Still Get Made, They’re Just Hard To Find: Lonergan’s 3-Hr MARGARET

“Kenny, you made a masterpiece. Unfortunately it’s in the wrong decade and the wrong country.”

These were actor Mark Ruffalo’s words to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan upon seeing the 3-hour cut of Lonergan’s film MARGARET.

For those who don’t know, playwright Lonergan’s second film (his first was the incredibly well-received YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, also starring Ruffalo), underwent a tremendous journey from script to screen. The epic urban tale was filmed in 2005 by Lonergan and lingered in an interminably long editing limbo. Lonergan had a difficult time finding the cut that worked for him; an artist struggling to find his vision while financiers and a studio breathed down his neck. Not that Lonergan was a victim here. His needs (to be left alone to do the work) are a lot to ask when so much time and money is on the line. Something Lonergan is well-aware of. And he seems to carry little resentment over how things went down. He seems to understand all-too-well the role he played in the film’s history.

“Nobody really did anything wrong, exactly, it’s just everyone was very frightened and nervous. Some people can have fights and then go back to work; I have a big fight and I shake for the rest of the day. Or even if it’s not a fight, it’s just a conversation, and a problem comes up I think about that [constantly], so I very much need to be left alone completely and that’s the one thing that’s very difficult for people. Understandably. I mean, write a cheque for $12 million dollars and you wanna make sure it’s going to come out all right, it’s reasonable. But I need to find a way to separate the two things… Not that it was all bad, the film came out very well, I’m happy with the result and I’m happy that people seem to like it. So I don’t know what more I can ask for. Except to be younger.”

Producer Scott Rudin pushed Lonergan to complete his cut until he finally realized what was happening:

“Kenny’s not a guy who takes distractions well or easily. He’s somebody who is highly concentrated on the work and not at all interested in the politics. So when the politics started to become noisier than the work, that was hard for him.”

Lonergan was contracted to deliver a two and a half hour film. Financier/producer Gary Gilbert stepped in when this seemed like an impossibility and commissioned a 2-hr cut from a different editor. This satisfied no one but the financier himself. Finally, in the fall of 2008, Lonergan delievered a 2-1/2 hr cut that everyone but Gilbert signed off on. Many say Gilbert didn’t sign off out of bitterness and a vindictive nature due to the negative response to his handling of Lonergan and his insistence of his own 2-hour cut as the preferred version of the film. Gilbert refused to pay his half of the $12.5 million budget. Lawsuits ensued.

According to Rudin:

“The guy who pays for the movie is not supposed to be [in the editing room]. . . . He’s a guy who wrote a check. Mr. Gilbert badly hurt the movie. Mr. Gilbert going in and working in the editorial department was a very destructive act… If you’re making a movie with Kenny Lonergan and you sign off on the script, he’s the director, that’s the contract you made. Because you decide that you’re anxious about your investment, that doesn’t give you the right to completely recalibrate your relationship.”

Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (both friends and supporters of Lonergan’s) were brought in to the editing room to heal wounds and delivered a 160 minute cut that everyone signed off on, including Lonergan, but again Gilbert refused. Mark Ruffalo:

“There comes a point where people cut off their nose to spite their face, and I certainly witnessed that. Whatever bad blood went down between them, I never felt like Gary ever got over it and actually tried to ensure that the movie and Kenny would be harmed.”

So with three cuts now in limbo and still no version really satisfying Lonergan’s vision, the film ended up in cinema purgatory for a total 6 years, unseen by a curious public confused by the many behind-the-scenes tales.

Eventually, in the fall of 2011, Lonergan’s own 2-1/2 hour cut of the film was released with almost no marketing. It disappeared almost immediately. A twitter campaign fueled by fans and critics resurrected the film for another theatrical release in October of that same year. But it was too-little too-late and the film was barely recognized by the public at large.


Now, the 2-1/2 hour cut has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. But Lonergan’s 3 hr cut has also been released, though you will not find it streaming or for rental. It is available ONLY on DVD and ONLY on the DVD/Blu-ray Combo pack sold on Amazon. And while this is not being marketed as a Director’s Cut but as an Extended Cut, it is widely considered the cut to see as it seems to be the version that comes closest to capturing Lonergan’s vision.

In the writer/director’s own words:

“It’s not a director’s cut. We’re calling it an extended cut. It’s a different version. A director’s cut is where they take the movie away from you and chop it to pieces and send it out without your permission…This is just another version with a little bit more of everything in it.”

Matt Damon, who is one of the film’s many notable stars, explains:

“One of the reasons this took so long is because [Lonergan] didn’t want to give up and he’s put his whole soul into this thing to the exclusion of any other work he could have been doing. And it wasn’t a triumph at the end because they weren’t able to release his version.”

Well, now that version is available. But sadly, that availability is limited and will still only be seen by a select few “in the know.” So, while it’s great that we finally get to see the film, there is still a battle to find a way to put this cut of the film out there for others to access, to discover, to be potentially moved by (not to mention to see it in Hi-def on Blu-ray). In a country where surface mediocrity is lauded as deep and introspective (THE DESCENDANTS, UP IN THE AIR), it’s a shame that one of the greatest contemporary American films has gotten so lost, so mismanaged, so belittled. Academy voters were either unaware or indifferent. Not that an award is the be-all and end-all of any work of art, but it does offer an opportunity to raise awareness of a film’s existence. But then the question comes into play as to whether the average American movie-goer would even get that they were in the presence of one of the greatest American films to come along in years. Very few contemporary films suggest that Americans as filmmakers and filmwatchers are capable of any level of depth or insight. More than not, most American films showcase our unwillingness to dig beneath the surface, to understand anything but the most literal, the most blatant. This was not always the case, but it appears we have somehow managed to devolve into such a state. It’s not that there aren’t daring writers and filmmakers out there, it’s just that the battle to get those films made, no less released, is near-impossible. The corporatization of the industry combined with a slow infantalization and anti-intellectualization of the populace has culminated in a rather hostile creative landscape. To quote Ruffalo again, “it’s in the wrong decade and the wrong country.”

Of the three best contemporary films I’ve seen recently, only MARGARET is American-made. The other two, CERTIFIED COPY and NORWEGIAN WOOD, are both foreign-made, foreign-language films. Only the 3-hour cut of MARGARET represents the artistic potential and expressive sensibility present in our country and, as stated already, most Americans are completely unaware of its existence and will have a hard time seeing it even if they are. And, by any contemporary standard, the film’s an anomaly; films like MARGARET rarely, if ever, get made here. And when they do, birthing them is usually an extraordinarily painful process and these babies are reviled as bastard children or stillbirths by the masses (certainly by the corporate powers-that-be). But thankfully, there are those who recognize their beauty and their innate humanity and fight vigorously and tirelessly to see these children find their proper place in the world. And that’s where our hope for the future lies. But it’s a staggering uphill battle.

Then there are those who recognized something extraordinary in Lonergan’s theatrical cut who have not been able to make the leap to the three hour cut. I’ve read online a number of self-proclaimed reviewers mourning the longer cut as “ruining” a masterpiece. They complain about “unnecessary” imagery of people walking the streets of N.Y., of the soundscape of the film having been changed to no longer focus exclusively on the main characters, but on the people in the world around them. I have heard complaints of too many shots of planes and buildings and of the 3-hour cut’s use of opera music. We have become so unaccustomed to anything but the most patent and transparent that we have lost sight of subtext, of metaphor, of cinematic language. I cannot imagine MARGARET without the scenes of our main character Lisa walking among the throngs of New Yorkers, her voice, her story, no more important than the voices and stories taking place all around her. This is a film about a teenager slowly coming to the realization that she is not the center of the universe. That her life is no more or less important than the lives of those around her. She is literally becoming aware of the world she lives in.

As for the opera music and scenes, the entire film centers around how teenagers often see their experiences as taking place in a melodramatic world; they hear the histrionic scores of their lives as they stumble their way through a rather self-centered world on the brink of shattering with no real understanding or perception of the consequences of their actions. This isn’t a judgement, but an observation. Without this, the film loses one of its most powerful threads thus weakening the final moments of this beautiful, touching and emotionally poignant film. After all, the movie is titled MARGARET, who is not a character in the film, but taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem titled “Spring and Fall: To a young child:”

   Margaret, are you grieving 
   Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
   Leaves, like the things of man, you 
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
   Ah! as the heart grows older 
   It will come to such sights colder 
   By and by, nor spare a sigh 
   Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
   And yet you will weep and know why. 
   Now no matter, child, the name: 
   Sorrow’s springs are the same. 
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed: 
   It is the blight man was born for, 
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

THIS is what the film’s about at its heart, in its soul, and all the pieces Lonergan has placed back into his Extended Cut and all the changes he’s made from the shorter version work toward enhancing this theme, both emotionally, practically and aesthetically. The shorter version is, while still extraordinary, more “conventional” than the longer cut. Certainly less poetic. And, as a result, it lacks the nuances of its sibling.

For example: Planes and buildings… The film takes place in a world still reeling from the aftermath of 9/11: the violence and suffering, the trauma, the fear, pain, longing and need for retribution that so many felt in the years following that tragic event. And how we eventually lost some of what we gained through our shared experience. Lonergan:

“Don’t you remember how everybody was slightly more awake or more attuned? You’d hear a car backfire and you’d jump? I remember it took several years before I stopped noticing airplanes. It was sort of like the city was still shaking from it, but also didn’t quite know how to be about it. I feel like it just suddenly supercharged everybody with an awareness that they didn’t have before, but without much more information… In 2003, every time an airplane went by you went ‘Oof,’ felt nervous. That’s not the case any more. That lasted for about 5 years… so [back then] everyone was a bit nervous and on edge. It was a bit different for a few years and unfortunately I don’t think the difference has sunk in in quite the way that I wish it had. For a moment it felt like, I felt like, the U.S. had joined the rest of the world, and then two weeks later all the TV commercials were back and it was all the same again. And I don’t think it’s very different now from how it was in 2000.” 

For anyone who has read any of my other posts either on writing or on film, it should come as no surprise that Lonergan’s MARGARET is my kind of film. My personal journey as a writer has taken me down a path where I have started not only to trust my subconscious throughout the storytelling process, but to consider it my most valued and faithful partner:

“I tried to turn off my conscious mind and that’s why the first draft of the script, it was never meant to be shot, but it was 306 pages, because I let scenes go on. I knew where it was going and I knew where the beats were and I just kind of closed my eyes, and it’s amazing what happens when you do that. I had a wonderful time writing it and it was very easy to cut a hundred pages out of it in two weeks — you know when she goes to see the bus driver in Brooklyn, that scene is probably six pages long and it was sixteen pages long when I wrote it.”

The growth Kenneth Lonergan has shown from his first feature to his second is monumental. Where YOU CAN COUNT ON ME had a terrific script with terrific performances, it was most certainly directed by someone whose hand had not yet steadied to the cinematic craft, though Lonergan himself is a lover of cinema, particularly classic. With MARGARET, Lonergen has made one of the most profound, insightful and emotionally gripping pieces of cinema to come out of the heart and mind of an American filmmaker in years. It is the greatest reflection of who and what we are, of how we see and experience the world. This is a film that showcases what American filmmakers are capable of beyond our technological prowess. I urge you to find a way to see it.

In its full 180 minute Extended Cut version, of course.


Kenneth Lonergan on Margaret | Film interview, TimeOut Chicago

Kenneth Lonergan Discusses The Changes In The New Cut Of ‘Margaret,’ Digital Vs. Film, 3D & More, IndieWire

Kenneth Lonergan On The Inspirations, Performances, Resonances & Structure Of ‘Margaret’, IndieWire

Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece, NY Times

Great American Films Still Get Made, They’re Just Hard To Find: Lonergan’s 3-Hr MARGARET

Blu-ray Kvetch Session

I originally wrote this article for THE EXAMINER on March 29, 2010. I’m slowly transferring some of those articles over to my blog. 

Blu-ray is the best thing to hit the home theater world since, well… since DVD. Except it’s so much better than DVD. And while the picture and sound are mostly quite astounding (albeit with varying degrees of quality depending on studio and film), there are still some areas that need work.

Among the biggest pet peeves one reads about is the almost always ridiculously awful cover art. One wonders if the marketing folks behind such things have a clue as to what the movies are about, what tone they set, or who their audience is. Original artwork is almost always tossed aside and replaced with what appears to be a slapped-together series of still cutouts ranging from the patently boring to the grotesquely absurd. Will someone please take the time to honor these films with something that borders on creative and/or fitting?

Next up would be disc menus. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to create menus that contain actual scenes from the film you are about to watch, but it has caught on and spread like the bubonic plague. As if the viewer of said movie needed that extra little bit of inspiration to click “play.” Because, after all, who doesn’t want to see crucial scenes from the film they’re about to watch?! There are Blu-ray menus out there that actually contain scenes from the films’ surprise climaxes (e.g. “House Of The Devil”). Are the menus geared toward folks who have already seen the film? Is that the logic? Because if you’re the type of viewer who doesn’t want to know what happens in a film before you see it, then you’re gonna have to devise some way to navigate through the menu without catching crucial moments from the film while doing so. Good luck with that. Perhaps Warners has the right idea with Blu-ray discs that skip the menu entirely and go directly to the film itself. Pop it in and watch.

Taking this discussion one step further, let’s discuss for a moment the distribution companies that insist on making it impossible to jump to the menu. No, first you have to either watch or skip from one trailer to the next. And oftentimes the “skip” option is disabled. That’ll boil your blood. Then there are the endless advertisements extolling the virtues of Blu-ray for people who clearly already own a Blu-ray player! Is no one considering the fact that those who purchase Blu-rays most likely watch these films more than once and may not want to sit through a hundred trailers each and every time they throw the disc in their player? And even if this is done for the first-time viewer, can we at least have the option of going straight to the menu anyway? Ever hear of the term “user-friendly?”

Then there’s the overuse of DNR and edge-enhancement. Great films like PATTON and OUT OF AFRICA and most recently SPARTACUS get shredded daily on Blu-ray sites and blogs for their excessive grain-removal techniques which reduce actors’ faces to wax museum replicas. Not only are these companies narrowing sales numbers via a swarm of negative press, but they are fueling the notion that the companies behind these transgressions either don’t know what they’re doing or simply don’t care. It creates an air of distrust between consumer and distributor. In the beginning, it may have been a learning curve for all involved, but at this stage, the less-than-savory results of excessive DNR and edge-enhancement are well documented.

Then there’s the occasional Blu-ray (“Crank 2” anyone?) that requires your player to have a memory card installed in order to work. So if your player doesn’t have one of those, hopefully you have your digital camera standing by with that extra memory card you can borrow. Is all this extra data really “necessary” to the Blu-ray experience? To the point that it actually impedes your ability to view the film?

Hopefully, someone somewhere will read this –or another post like it– and realize that, though Blu-rays are a very exciting addition to the home theater community, there are still a few areas that can be improved upon to create a product that at least feels geared toward the consumer’s desires and ease of use.

What are some of your Blu-ray kvetches?

Blu-ray Kvetch Session

Spielberg Makes Sure Fans Know He Is NOT George Lucas

Say what you want about Steven Speilberg, but he is fast becoming a firm and vocal voice against the re-writing of film history. So much so that he has not shied away from some very vocal jabs against old pal George Lucas who has recently come under fire once again for his incessant altering of his Star Wars franchise to the point that there is a fan campaign to boycott the upcoming Blu-ray release of these films.

At a recent screening of a new digital restoration of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at Los Angeles’ Hero Complex, Spielberg commented on filmmakers who alter their films, thus erasing their historical context:

“Speaking for myself, I tried this once and I learned to regret it. Not because of fan outrage, but simply because I was a little disappointed in myself. I got very kind of overly sensitive to some of the criticism E.T. had gotten from parent groups when it was first released in ’82. Having to do with Elliot saying penis breath or the guns with the CIA. And also there were some rough around the edges close-ups of E.T. that I had always thought if technology ever evolves to the point where I can do some facial enhancements with E.T. I would like to. So I did an E.T. pass for the third release of the movie and it was okay for a while then I realized that what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T. My only contrition that I could possibly do because I feel bad about that, the only contrition that I really performed was when E.T. came out on DVD for the first time. I told Universal, we’re going to do this or we’re not going to put E.T. on DVD. You have to put two movies in the box and one movie will be the 1982 version and the other will be the digitally enhanced version. What I’d like to ask is this. We’ll do a little poll here. I know we’re coming out with the Blu-ray of E.T. If I came out with just one E.T. on Blu-ray, the 1982 one, would anybody object to that? [Audience shouts ‘No!’] Ok, so be it.”

But friends and colleagues must be careful of just how “critical” they are of their pals. Spielberg also added:

“Let me put it this way, George does what he does because there’s only one George Lucas, and thank god for that. He’s the greatest person I’ve ever worked with as a filmmaker collaborator and he’s a conceptual genius. He puts together these amazing stories and he’s great at what he does. My feeling is that he can do anything he wants with his movies because they’re his movies and we wouldn’t have been raised with Star Wars or Indiana Jones had it not been for George.”

But luckily, Spielberg’s point has been made and it is a most welcome response to Lucas’ continued alterations and his open disdain for the people who are fighting for the very things he himself once stood before Congress and campaigned so vigorously for (see my post HERE). Let’s hope more filmmakers take the same stand Spielberg has. Which, in supporting the importance of film and its history, automatically sheds a light on just how selfish and misguided George Lucas has become. Perhaps one day, Lucas himself will come to understand and respect the wishes of those of us who care about preserving film and cultural history and remember that there was a time when he was one of us. Let’s hope that Mr. Spielberg is, in perfect Dickens fashion, the first of many ghosts to haunt Mr. Lucas.

Spielberg Makes Sure Fans Know He Is NOT George Lucas