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Daily Reads: The Disappearance of Mid-Budget Movies, the Most Exciting Working Cinematographers and More

Daily Reads: The Disappearance of Mid-Budget Movies, the Most Exciting Working Cinematographers and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential
news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Disappearance of the Mid-Budget Movies. It’s becoming increasingly hard to finance movies that aren’t either tentpoles or less-than-shoestring budgeted. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire writes about how the death of the mid-budget movie has left a generation of independent filmmakers like John Waters, David Lynch and Francis Ford Coppola largely MIA, and what caused the problem.

So even if a Lynch, a Waters, or a Soderbergh decided to suck it up and “go backward,” they’d face a variety of obstacles. First, the budgets might be even lower than they remember. Whit Stillman made three successful independent films in the early 1990s and then didn’t make a film for a decade and a half. Before shooting that film, he tells me, he had a conversation with another director, “one who had commercial hits in the ‘90s.” His colleague told Stillman “that to make films now, budgets had to be exceptionally, amazingly low. Then it turned out that he meant ‘under 200,000’ while I was thinking ‘under two million.’ These are the two ranges I think of when considering the viability of projects.” Read more.

2. The 20 Most Exciting Working Cinematographers. Emmanuel Lubezki, Roger Deakins and Benoit Delhomme all stand a good chance at getting Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography this year. They’re also all on Kristopher Tapley’s list on HitFix of the 20 most exciting cinematographers working today.

Robert Elswit. Robert Elswit’s work really comes alive when he’s on a Paul Thomas Anderson project, but he clearly boasts striking accomplishments besides. By angle or by movement, his frame always seems to find unique ways to capture drama. But the vivid color and rich atmosphere of his latest offering may well be his best work, which is saying so, so much. Read more.

3. Style is Substance in 2014’s Best Genre Films. This was a strong year for genre films, with thrillers like “Nightcrawler,” noirs like “Inherent Vice” and action movies like “John Wick.” Chuck Bowen of Fandor wrote that these films prove that style is content.

“Nightcrawler” (dir: Dan Gilroy); “Locke” (dir: Steven Knight)

The scripts, both written by the films’ respective directors, are serviceable but schematic and obvious. But the movies, both comprised of imagery that finds their alienated heroes driving around their cities at night, memorably capture the literal and spiritually nocturnal alienation of the disenfranchised. “Nightcrawler,” with its seductively sad L.A. iconography, bathed in surreal and painterly neon, suggests Edward Hopper rendering the ultimate noir. “Locke” pins a powerfully masculine actor down to one setting and turns his squirming into a thing of stifled physical poetry. Read more.

4. Pushing Boundaries in Nonfiction Films. “Actress” director Robert Greene has been pushing for more expressive, less issue-driven documentaries for years, and many have seen it as a new trend in non-narrative cinema. At Sight & Sound, he writes about how that’s not wholly accurate, and how “hybrids” between documentaries and narrative films should be about pushing boundaries, not becoming a trend.

In the transition from historically marginalized sub-movement to trend du jour, filmic modes tend to get inflated and overhyped, which typically makes them more easily dismissed. If cinematic nonfiction aka ‘hybrid’ films aka whatever you want to call them can gain a more sturdy relationship with the broader documentary infrastructure, then that is obviously a good thing. But in our transition from whatsits to mules – to creatures that can labour efficiently for funders (AKA be profitable or at least presentable at board meetings) – it’s important to remember that cinematic adventurism is what this is all about. Taking chances, pushing the form and risking failure is what has gotten people excited in the first place.

5. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Secret History of SoCal. Paul Thomas Anderson has become the de facto California director of his generation, going beyond documenting his home and toward finding a way to recreate it in every era. Grantland’s Tom Carson calls him the excavator of SoCal’s secret history.

Nobody else would have pegged the San Fernando Valley porn biz as a candidate for a magical time capsule, but Anderson reacted to that piece of local history the way a Virginia middle schooler might to learning that a Civil War battle had been fought in his backyard. He’d also caught on ahead of most people that the disco era — an unrecognized milestone in the California-izing of our national mores — was as evocatively Other by 1997 as, say, World War II. Since then, he’s gotten progressively less interested in providing conventional entertainment to mitigate his stark view of society’s power dynamics. Read more.

6. “The Newsroom” is the Worst Prestige Show. Some of us weren’t very big on Aaron Sorkin to begin with (*raises hand*), but “The Newsroom” features all of Sorkin’s worst habits and few of his best. Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post wrote about why it’s television’s worst prestige show.

Sorkin and his characters never acknowledge that new media companies like BuzzFeed are funding exactly the kind of foreign reporting associate producer Maggie Jordan (a hugely misused Alison Pill) does in the show’s second season. Sorkin is so determined to re-litigate ancient media stories, like Jimmy Kimmel’s 2007 segment on Gawker Stalker (a bit of media criticism conducted by a comedian, not a Very Serious Business Journalist) that “The Newsroom” appears both vindictive and wildly out-of-date. And heaven forfend “The Newsroom” acknowledge that personal essays by young women might function as a necessary corrective to mainstream media coverage of issues like contraception and sexual assault, that men might find something worthwhile in “Sex and the City,” or that cultural coverage might raise important issues from angles policy coverage cannot reach. Read more.

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