At this year’s New Year’s Eve party, I was discussing movies with some friends and acquaintances. One of the people there mentioned that he was cataloging a list of the best movies of the decade (2003 – 2013) and read me his list. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t, but it galvanized me to make my own list.
So here, in chronological order by release date, is my list of the best movies of the last ten years:
10 Best Movies of the Last 10 Years:
I don’t think I’m alone in classifying Kill Bill’s 2 “volumes” as a single movie. This is, by far, my favorite Tarantino story. Kill Bill is a flawless blend of Asian revenge movies and American westerns (which are some of my favorite genres as well). Both genres feed off each other so well, and make for a very effective journey through Beatrix’s blood soaked vengeance.
Zak Braff’s directorial debut, despite being about adults growing up, makes itself timeless. Garden State is a movie that I can come back and watch – no matter what point I’m at in my life or career – and find new meaning. Whatever’s going on with me, I’m always able to connect to the characters and find a deeper center in myself after watching. This “replayability”, created by a deep connection with his audience and their struggles, insecurities and fears, makes the movie enjoyable forever.
As Kill Bill is my favorite Tarantino movie, The Departed is my favorite Scorsese film. It’s evident that he brought all his experience and talent to bear when making it, from the allusions to classic movies to the layers deep moments of every scene. Seriously, watch it again. The moments have moments. It’s more Seagull than Taxi Driver and, without question, one of the best movies ever made.
When I was a child, my parents would take me to see classic movies at the Allen Theater in Anville. I saw The Longest Day, Gone with the Wind, Dr Zhivago and tons more from those Saturday matinees. Atonement feels the way those movies did. It’s epic, but centered. It’s a story of the war and of a country torn apart, but it’s really about a forbidden love. The interplay between those layers and themes elevate this movie from simple romance into true classic movie, one that deserves to be praise and revered.
There’s not a whole lot for me to say about this one. The Dark Knight is arguably the best superhero movie ever made. It’s the perfect balance of character, plot and action, and still brings a mirror to bear on our world. It’s all about terror, hope, and the end justifying the means. These are universal constants, and they are executed perfectly against the backdrop of a costumed ninja and a clown with an automatic rifle.
Great science fiction is not just about aliens and spaceships. It’s a way to redefine the conflicts of your generation and to ask pointed questions about your way of life. It takes the issue we can’t discuss in public and brings them out in the open, taking them to the next level. I’ll admit, I may have a special bias toward District 9. I’ve been to Johannesburg, and I’ve seen the divide that exists there. In this post apartheid world, there is still a lot of work to be done before true unity is achieved. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away, and Neill Blomkamp draws compelling parallels using real live aliens.
Years ago, I stumbled on a book called Vicious Spring by Hollis Hampton Jones. It’s a touching, disturbing and incredibly accurate depiction of teenage life in a dead end town. Fish Tank is Vicious Spring in movie form. Featuring the best performance I’ve seen from a first time actor, it’s an incredible human drama that needs to be experienced.
An interesting side note for this one…it’s shot in 1.33:1. It’s impressive to see director Andrea Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan take such an ugly aspect ratio and make it compelling. It’s a case for all of us to carefully consider why we shoot what we shoot. Just because we consider it “more cinematic”, it may not be the best choice for the story we’re telling. I can’t imagine Fish Tank in any other aspect ratio…this is not a cinematic masterpiece, it’s a slice of life, and the cropped feel reflects that perfectly.
There are two ways you can attack an enemy: retaliate through violence and become their equal or turn them into a joke and rise above them. Four Lions chooses the latter. It’s a dark comedy about a gang of poorly trained Jihadists. Reread that sentence. The thing is, it succeeds where movies like WTC failed. It humanizes the threat, and makes us laugh at it. It’s the real way to keep the terrorists from winning. Beyond that, it’s a funny, touching look at outsiders just trying to fit in. Well worth a watch, just be prepared – it’s still about bombs.
I’m a huge Refen fan. I could probably list any of his movies here and make arguments for why they are the best. But Drive truly is. It’s a story about the quiet moments between the violence. It’s one of the most compelling and dynamic movies I’ve ever seen. It got me excited about filmmaking again. Drive is cinematic excellence, delivered like the blow of a hammer.
It’s no secret that I love a good horror story. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is a GREAT horror story. Not quite like anything before, it’s a haunting journey of guilt, regret and remorse. It’s a powerful look at the brainwashing of organized religion and the horrors that we try to hide from ourselves. Watch it with the lights out and try not to look over your shoulder…I dare you.
These are mine. What are the best movies you’ve seen in the past ten years?
For the last month or so, I’ve been back in the writer’s chair, sipping the writer’s coffee and attacking a new narrative script. I’ve been largely focused on plot development and character arcs, so it’s very fortuitous that a familiar article is making its rounds in the blog world – Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.
It’s no secret that Pixar consistently produces some of the most solid pieces of storytelling out there. Their writers have a fantastic grasp of the human condition, plot and character arcs and escalation. They know how to make things hard, risky and rewarding and how and when to raise the stakes. They are masters of their craft.
Interestingly, I feel that Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling pair well with some fascinating advice from Henry David Thoreau. Let’s explore them together and try to discover how these two different artists’ philosophies compliment each other.
Any writer, regardless of their medium, can benefit from Pixar’s rules. Here are some of my favorites:
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Most of these relate to characters. Good storytelling, at its core, comes from good character development. Without engaging, compelling and complex choices, all your hard work on the plot will be meaningless.
Thoreau’s Unintended Advice for Writers
One of my favorite pieces of advice for writers is not for writers at all. It comes from Thoreau’s Walden:
“Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
A story’s plot is a series of moves. They key to effective storytelling is using as few moves as possible. Even the most complex and twisting stories should be able to be boiled down to a few basic moves, leading the characters from point A to B to C and concluding there. Too many moves and things either get confusing or coincidental – neither of these is a good storytelling.
Conclusion – Back to Basics
When we take Pixar and Thoreau together, we see both sides of a coin. You can’t have compelling storytelling without a powerful plot and your powerful plot is meaningless without engaging characters. They support each other. Therefore:
Keep your stories simple, keep your characters complex.
Follow this rule, and you’ll be well on your way to successful storytelling.
Why 4K TVs are Stupid
This is just a fantastic article on 4k tvs and why you don’t need one. I’m nowhere near as intelligent as Mr. Morrison, so I’ll just provide you with the link to his excellent analysis of how our eyes process information and why contrast matters more than pixels.
Please take the time to read his article, especially if you’re considering buying a new TV. ESPECIALLY if you’re considering buying 4K TVs.
“The latest TV technology buzzword is “4K.” This magical alphanumeric represents a quadrupling of the now-standard 1080p resolution found on Blu-ray and most HDTVs.
Have no doubt, manufacturers are going to start pushing 4K (some already are).
The thing is, though, you don’t need 4K, because in the home, 4K is stupid…
The human eye, for all its amazingness, has a finite resolution. This is why you can read your computer screen from where you’re sitting, but not if you’re on the other side of the room. Everyone is different, but the average person with 20/20 vision can resolve 1 arcminute. One arcminute is 1/60th a degree. If you assume your field of vision is 180 degrees (it’s not, but go with me here), and you take 1 degree of that, you’re able to resolve a 1/60th sliver of that degree. Close up this means you can see hairs on your arm, wrinkles on your thumb, and so on. At distance, these fine details disappear. If a friend waves at you from across a field, you can probably see the person’s thumbs, but not any wrinkles or hair. Far enough away, you probably won’t even be able to see thumbs, unless those are some really, really big thumbs.
One arcminute of resolution is a best-case scenario. On a black on white vision chart, this holds true. Reduce the contrast of the object with the background, add color, and many other factors limit your ability to resolve resolution.
Your over-resolutioned TV
Let’s bring this back to TVs.
Depending on technology, a 1080p 50-inch flat panel TV’s pixels are approximately 0.023 inch wide. This is presuming they’re square (many aren’t) and that there’s no intra-pixel distance (there is). The plasma I photographed for the lead image above measured 3 pixels per 1/16 inch, which is 0.021 inch per pixel. So we’re in the ballpark.
Most people sit about 10 feet from their television. At 10 feet (120 inches), your eye can resolve an object 0.035 inch wide, if like I said above, there’s enough difference between it and the background (or its adjacent pixel, in this case). The memories of the Westwood school system that told me I was bad at math compels me to show my work, so feel free to check my math:
2 x pi x 120″: 753.98″ (circumference of a circle, with you at the center)
753.98 / 360: 2.0944″ (360 degrees in a circle)
2.0944 / 60: 0.0349″ (60 minutes in a degree)
This math, or just looking at your TV, tells you that you can’t see individual pixels. What’s interesting is that a 720p, 50-inch TV has pixels roughly 0.034 inch wide. As in, at a distance of 10 feet, even 720p TVs have pixels too small for your eye to see.
That’s right, at 10 feet, your eye can’t resolve the difference between otherwise identical 1080p and 720p televisions. Extrapolating this out, you’d have to get a TV at least 77 inches diagonal before you’d start having a pixel visibility problem with 1080p.
Or, you can move closer. Beyond being a math exercise, let’s be realistic. No one’s going to sit 6 feet from a big TV. I’d doubt 7 feet, either. So if we say 8 feet (96 inches), or 0.028 inch on the resolution side, this means you’d need a TV that’s bigger than 60 inches to really benefit from 1080p.”
Silly Little Holiday Gifts that Every Filmmaker will Love
The holiday gift giving season is upon us! Do you have any filmmakers on your shopping list this year? Why not surprise them with one (or all) of the cute, funny and awesome holiday gifts from our list!
Holiday Gift #1: Lens Pens
Not just a holiday gift, Lens Pens are one of those things that every filmmaker and photographer needs in abundance. I have one in every bag I carry and I still lose them all the time. Buy a bunch and wrap them individually for multiple stocking stuffers…this actually happened to me last year and I loved it!
Holiday Gift #2: Lens Mug
Let’s face it: filmmakers love coffee. These lens mugs have become a hot commodity in the filmmaking community in the last few years. Available in a variety of lens types and manufacturers, they elicit some of the most amusing reactions when given as holiday gifts. It starts with “What is this?” and shifts to “You shouldn’t have” and ends with “This is so freaking cool!”
Holiday Gift #3: Spotlight Floor Lamp
One of these spotlight floor lamps sits proudly in the corner of my office. Based on a standard HMI light design but powered by conventional lamps, this makes a great holiday gift for the filmmaker with dark corners in his house. I’ve even used mine to light a scene, so it’s already proved itself as more than a fashionable piece of furniture.
And speaking of furniture…
Holiday Gift # 4+: Film Reel Furniture
It’s true that celluloid film has become something of a legacy item. Digital filmmaking is faster, easier and often cheaper these days and has mostly replaced it’s older brother. But fear not; film and film reels can now find new work: accent furniture. Old film reels are repurposed as end tables or clocks and add a touch of old cinema class to a production office or screening room.
Holiday Gift #5: Camera USB Flash Drives
Every filmmaker worth his baseball cap is obsessed with storage. We secretly hoard hard drives and flash drives, and keep everything backed up everywhere. I probably have more flash drives than friends at this point. And I could definitely use more, especially if they’re camera shaped. The perfect way to carry around your reel or your photo portfolio, these cut little peripherals give a whole new meaning to “camera flash”.
Got any filmmaker – specific requests on your holiday gift list? Drop a comment and let us know what you want to find under the tree this year!
Photography is a funny thing. I don’t really identify myself as a photographer. It’s a hobby of mine, I hardly ever do it professionally, and I don’t see any real future in it.
Yet, somehow, I keep doing it. More and more each month.
I was asked by a fellow filmmaker recently why I’m not going to sell my DSLR and buy a Black Magic Cinema camera or a C100. It took me a long time to figure out why. I love DSLR’s, I love the body style and the portability. But I identify myself as a filmmaker, which means I should probably have a filmmaker’s camera, not a mutant hybrid of photography and videography.
So why do I refuse to let go of my DSLR?
A Moment from a Lens
For me, shooting stills has always been a byproduct of shooting video. Photography is almost exactly like cinematography, only way easier. Movies tell stories, and use an extended time to do it, maybe one minute, maybe ninety. But in photography, you tell the story in one frame. That’s it. There’s no beginning – middle – end, there is just now. Just the moment.
It’s funny to me, because it should be harder. I’ve told stories in two hours, it seems like telling them in one frame should be a challenge. Honestly, it probably is, but I don’t see it that way. To me, it’s just fun.
Love, Hate and Puppy Kicking
There’s an assumption that artists love what they do. People think that every day we write or shoot or paint that we’re doing it with a smile and just having a great time. This is, almost completely wrong.
I don’t love filmmaking. Seriously, I don’t. I spend equal amounts of time enjoying it, dreading it, hating it and procrastinating around it. I don’t do it because I love it; I do it because NOT doing it is the worst feeling in the world. Not shooting is like maliciously kicking a puppy; it’s the worst kind of self – disappointment you can imagine.
I’m a filmmaker because I can’t not be one. For better or for worse, that’s the reason I do what I do; because there really isn’t another option. I’d spend all my time cursing myself for not doing what I “love”.
The Stigma of Labels
Having spent the past eight years ridiculously devoted to filmmaking, I’ve come to identify myself as a “filmmaker”. While the definition of this word has become rather fluid in the past two years, it still means basically the same thing: shoot and edit video to tell a story. That story might be a narrative, a music video or a wedding, but the format is still the same.
When I left my full time job, it became an even stronger passion. Now, because I was shooting for money, I had to work even harder and become an even better filmmaker. I had to devote myself to the craft and live as if there was nothing else that mattered.
I think that, because filmmaking is my business and my livelihood at this stage, I can’t truly enjoy it. It’s who I am, what I do and a large portion of my identity. By creating this stigma, I’ve distanced myself from the reason I got started as a filmmaker in the first place – because I enjoyed it.
Photography – My “No Pressure” Hobby
The thing about photography is that I don’t have to do it, the way I have to make movies. It uses the same skill set and the same tools, but I don’t hate myself for not shooting because I’m not a photographer.
Seriously, I’m not. I just really, really enjoy it. Like a lot.
I’m allowed to enjoy photography because it’s not my identity. It’s just something I do on the side, for myself and for fun.
So the question is; if I start identifying myself as a photographer…will it stop being fun too? I don’t know if I want to find out.
All the images are of actress Andrea Lynn Green. Find out more about her here.
In general, I try not to talk about camera news here. It’s not because it doesn’t interest me, it’s just because I can’t keep up to date enough to contribute any better than some of the other blogs out there.
So, instead of discussing Sony’s new announcement and Red’s price drops, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the camera market as a whole, how it has changed in the last three years and why these changes occurred. It’s a testament to the power of customer satisfaction and the Invisible Hand.
Evolution…Like the Dinosaur
We’ve seen epic change in the low end professional camera market recently. From the early beginnings of the 5DMII, with it’s almost-an-afterthought 1080p recording, we’ve watched the camera world evolve. Today, 4k is an affordable reality offered by even smaller camera companies (and cameras!)
While this is a byproduct of technological advancement, it’s also a testament to the power of the market. When 5DMII’s and 7D’s started to sell to filmmakers, other camera companies sat up and took notice. It sparked an Invisible Hand competition between the camera companies to see who could better tailor their cameras to fit the needs of their customer base.
It would be foolhardy to assume that we alone created a world of affordable 4K, but we can’t ignore the impact our influence had on the market. It’s evidenced in the firmware updates that emerged for DSLR’s – 24p, audio meters and the like were all developed to satisfy customer needs. The entire Magic Lantern firmware, developed to make these cameras filmmaking workhorses, was inspired by customer dissatisfaction – a hole in the market.
Seeing DSLR’s being used as true film cameras, other companies began to develop new cameras and modify existing designs based on the needs of the filmmaking customer. Red scrapped their original Scarlet design to fit the new needs of the market, while Black Magic leapt forward by introducing their own camera.
Our voice had been heard – we wanted affordable, high resolution film cameras with large sensors and interchangeable lenses. Manufacturers said yes.
Strength in Numbers
I can’t even begin to describe how thrilled I am to see these camera companies, large and small, listening and responding to our requests; indirect as it may be. Our community drove this change, using our economic power to tell the market exactly what we wanted.
I want to see this continue. Let’s get out, let’s get shooting and let’s use our customer power to influence creation and innovation. If we had sat back three years ago and let the 5DMII pass us by, this change would not have happened.
It’s not dissimilar to voting, is it? So let me shamelessly add this: I won’t judge you based on who you voted for, but I will judge you based on if you voted.
So let’s get out there and exert some influence.
I swear at the software programs I use all the time. I belittle them, chastise them and generally try to get them to behave exactly the way I want. And I’m not the only one who does this.
One of my good friends has affectionately nicknamed FCP “Final Slut Hoe” and “Spinal Cut Pro” on different occasions. Another has taken to slamming her mouse repeatedly on her desk when an application stops responding. Another would just put his head down on his desk when he heard his drives start to spin up, because he know the application would stop responding for a while.
So why do artists experience such program rage when dealing with their software? Specifically software that allows them to do what they supposedly love? To understand the answer, you have to understand how an artist thinks.
Designed to be Ignored
All software designed for production, be it video editing, writing or spreadsheeting, should (at its most basic level) have a singular function: to act as a conduit between the creator and their product. A novelist, for example, uses Word to get their sentences out of their brains, onto a page and into manuscript format. A video editor is the same way; our software is designed to get our ideas from recorded clips into finished product.
The best software does this so well you almost forget it’s there. It allows you to move at the speed of your thoughts and throw your ideas and inspirations onto the screen without any blockage or pausing. As soon as you have to stop and focus on the program instead of the art, the program stops doing its job.
Think Like Your Software
Often, it’s a matter of putting aside the way you think your workflow should be handled, and taking the time to understand how the program “thinks”. I’ve been going through this process with FCPX (and I got a lot of pleasure out of creating the pic for this post). It can be a rough transition, refining your workflow to make it mesh with an application’s. And sometimes the two never meet and you simply can’t use the application effectively.
I’m naturally curious. For me, it’s a frustrating challenge to learn these new processes. I think that it makes me a better artist, because I can work in different ways and I’m not confined to one workflow. I like the idea of choosing a workflow based on the project, rather than trying to shoehorn every single client into the same process.
But along the way, I might swear at my applications. It’s all part of the learning curve.
Creating Looks In – Camera
I was second shooting a wedding this year, clicking off max res RAW images and rapidly filling my camera card. I mentioned this to the lead photographer. She told me that she had been shooting jpg’s all day, because she doesn’t need the flexibility of RAW. She knows exactly how she’s going to process the images and space is more important that latitude.
It got me thinking. She was a professional photographer with a ton of experience; the type of person you’d expect to crave the highest quality and broadest latitude out of her images. But she was shooting jpgs. And, in a way, that’s what made her a professional.
Back in the day…
When I first started out making movies, consumer and prosumer editing suites were extremely limited. iMovie was a brand new thing, and a new program called Final Cut Pro was making a splash. I was taking a broadcast class when Apple debuted iMovie, and I cut several promo videos for that class on our old G3 iMac. In fact, I was the student who spearheaded our adoption of FCP and pushed to move the studio to digital, non – linear workspaces.
At that time, with non – linear color grading in it’s early stages and DV images captured in such fragile codecs, your options were limited. Maybe a little white balance correction, maybe a bit of a tint, but that was it. Push those images too far and they quickly broke down into a mess of ugly pixelation.
As filmmakers, we circumvented our inability to color correct by “baking in” color profiles. That is, we created the look of the final movie in the camera, while we were shooting. It was what cinematographers had done for generations.
You set your sharpness, contrast and color balance before you started shooting. This allowed you to capture dynamically colored images, therefore permitting you to move much faster in post. Cut, maybe alter white and black levels in your NLE and send the movie on its way.
Slowly, as technology improved, we were granted more flexibility in the images. You could push them farther, and you could perform real color grades – actually creating a “look” for your film during post production. This was a boon for amateur filmmakers, as it allowed us to finely tailor the images to suit our needs. The whole realm of emotional color theory was opened.
The caveat of color grading in post is simple – you can’t have it both ways. You can’t bake in a look while shooting and generate a different look in post; it’s one or the other. So, if you want to take advantage of the powerful color tools at your disposal, you have to shoot flat. Low contrast, low saturation and low sharpness. Otherwise, you have to push the image even further, past the look you had previously created. The image quickly falls apart.
The Professional’s Toolbox
I used to be a die hard proponent of “shoot flat, grade dynamic”. I assumed that in – camera looks were a thing of the past. But the more work I do, the more I realize that baking in a look still has its place. Sometimes your deadline is too tight to perform a real color grade or sometimes the client just isn’t paying enough to justify another twelve hours spent in the editing room.
Baking in looks, like everything we do, has its place. Think of it more like a monopod or macro lens – some shoots will benefit from having it, others will not. As professionals, part of our job is knowing which toolbox to bring to each shoot. Baked in looks is one of those tools – use it wisely!
“You have to risk everything from time to time. The death of creativity is getting stuck in your ways” – Hans Zimmer
I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective and perception. Particularly the way we view ourselves and the effect it has on our lives. The way we view ourselves not only changes the way we deal with other people; it has the power to totally reshape our lives and alter our paths.
As artists, we have an awesome power to out – think ourselves. It’s remarkable easy for us to do. In fact, I don’t think I know a single successful artist who doesn’t second – guess their work and their worth on an almost weekly basis.
I used to think it was luck that separated a successful artist from an unsuccessful one. Right place, right time and all that. But the truth is, as Harvey Dent so gracefully put it, “We make our own luck”. The difference is that a successful artist knows when to listen to that nagging self doubt, and when to tell it to shut up.
It’s not an easy thing. It takes practice. And that secret, cynical voice will never really go away, just recede and get smaller and less powerful. But that’s good enough.
I don’t believe that you can really start creating and growing as an artist until you have confidence in your work. Until you can let it stand on its own, and speak and breathe. That’s when you start to push boundaries and change worlds. But it all starts by saying, “My work is pretty awesome and people want to see it”. Because it’s probably true.
So try it. That side project you’re working on, that script you’ve been revising for the past two years, that painting you’ve been touching up all month – show them off. You might be amazed at the reaction.
I have a habit of processing photos and walking away for a few days, only to return and push the images further. This set really benefitted from it. They have a creepy, horrific look that came very organically. I like to believe that’s the location’s essence coming through. That it followed me home like a rogue spirit and possessed the images, making them reflect it’s own inner demons.
Shot on 7D and Canon 28mm f/1.8. Processed in Lightroom.