10 Great Directorial Debuts You Can Watch on Netflix

Take a look at where some of Hollywood’s best and brightest got started. (All of the following ten titles are available for stream on Netflix instant.)

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1. Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson took the independent movie scene by storm with his successful breakout film Boogie Nights in 1997, but it was his first movie Hard Eight (alternatively titled Sydney) that launched his career one year earlier. Expanded from the 1993 short Cigarettes & Coffee, which earned an invitation by Sundance to make a first feature, Hard Eight contains all of the early stirrings of the prolific and talented PTA making movies today. The premise is simple: an old man meets a young man outside a diner. The two hit it off and proceed to share casual conversation over cigarettes and coffee. The young man needs money and the old man can teach him how to get it. A quasi father-son friendship develops, repeatedly tested by a series of rather unfortunate events, but this movie isn’t one driven by plot. Instead, Paul Thomas Anderson flashes his dexterity at constructing a subtle yet nuanced story with convincing characters and transports his audience to life’s classroom to learn a light lesson about human nature, all the while delivering a thriller with brilliant style. It’s not difficult to see why the young director was granted the privilege of final cut with only his third feature Magnolia.  (Edit: this title is no longer available on Netflix Instant)

2. Following (Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan is the Hollywood Renaissance man responsible for acquainting art house filmmaking with blockbuster moviemaking. It is equal parts enlightening and engaging to experience the modest 70-minute movie that precedes box office hits such as The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Nolan shot his 1998 debut Following on a budget of just $6,000, assuming screenwriting, directing, editing, and photographic responsibilities, and allotting the majority of his money to 16mm film stock. A proven master of mass appeal, Nolan exercises obvious early abilities here by crafting an accessible movie with an immediately engaging storyline. Following traces the steps of a man named Cobb, a young thrill seeker who thrives off of infiltrating the lives of strangers. He breaks into homes and burglarizes at random, defending his criminal activity with the assurance that his actions teach his victims to reevaluate their lives. Nolan’s established auteurism is already evident in his first feature, with emphases on nonlinear structure, unreliable narration, cinematic realism, and distinct visual style.

3. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino)

Widely renowned for his cult classic Pulp Fiction, which catapulted independent cinema into its golden age in 1994, Quentin Tarantino established himself as one of film’s frontrunners two years earlier with his first feature Reservoir Dogs. Both movies explicate Tarantino’s trademark style: nonlinearity, glorification of violence, heavy pop culture reference, genre mixing, and obvious homage to neo-noir aesthetics. Reservoir Dogs is a pure, unabashed crime film that depicts the events before and after, though not actually during, a diamond heist. The movie opens with group of eight men, most of whom mask their identities with aliases, seated around a diner table discussing organized crime over breakfast. The rest plays out as an erratic conversation intermittently interrupted by stressful confrontations and graphic assault. Though Reservoir Dogs was mostly met with immediate praise and later gained regard as one of the greatest independent films ever made, Tarantino knows his abrasive and provocative style isn’t for everyone. In a 1992 interview for The Seattle Times he explained, “for some people the violence, or the rudeness of the language, is a mountain they can’t climb. That’s OK. It’s not their cup of tea. But I am affecting them.”

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The Real Spike Lee Story

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Photo via Agência Brasil, Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to what was covered in the media, Spike Lee didn’t just address the issue of Brooklyn gentrification last Tuesday at the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill. The famed film director critiqued Black youth culture’s relation to education, discussed the politics of accurate depictions of people of color in film and talked about his come-up in the film industry. However, instead of contextualizing the discussion, the media sensationalized Lee’s remarks. Then, three days after his frank observations about racial, economic, and cultural transformations of Brooklyn neighborhoods were published on all major news networks and blogs, from CNN to Gawker, Lee’s father’s home in Fort Greene was vandalized. “Do the Right Thing” and the anarchy symbol was spraypainted on the street level of their brownstone.

“Why does it take an influx of White New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?,” was the quote that lassoed the crux of his passionate remarks on gentrification. The question seemed relevant as Lee was addressing an audience at one of the premiere art and design schools in the nation that has facilitated much of the gentrification in Clinton Hill and its surrounding areas. Most news outlets described it as an emotional “rant,” another outburst from an angry minority and left it at that. But those remarks were couched in a hotbed of information about Lee’s background growing up in Brooklyn when there weren’t cake-pop stores or fancy vegan, gluten-free bakeries. In the Fort Greene of Spike Lee’s adolescence, Myrtle Avenue was called Murder Avenue. [Read more…]

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Review)

Ben Stiller’s fifth feature-length directorial outing, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, screened Wednesday at Bowtie Chelsea Cinemas. Adapted from James Thurber’s classic 1939 short story, the adventure comedy details a bland office worker’s attempts to subvert reality through transcendent daydreams.

Walter Mitty features beautiful cinematography, with the picturesque mountains and waters of Iceland mirroring the larger-than-life travels of its titular character (Stiller). The duller half of the movie was shot in New York City, with familiar landmarks like Rockefeller Center popping up now and then. A Junip-heavy soundtrack suits the scenery well.

From the opening scene of Walter brooding over his eHarmony account in a solitary uptown apartment, his quiet desperation is palpable. He’s a man committed to his negative asset manager (photo editor) job at LIFE magazine, one he excels at by all accounts, but he has never taken any real chances or followed through on his passions. When a shakeup at work and the loss of a
crucial negative threatens his job as well as that of Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a co-worker he has a crush on, Walter suddenly comes out of his shell and embarks on a globetrotting adventure to track down renegade photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and the missing negative.

Walter routinely zones out in his daily life and daydreams of heroic feats that quash his nemesis boss (Adam Scott) and win the heart of Cheryl. The scenes portraying this are all excellently shot and provide a large portion of the movie’s laughs, but it’s a tired character trait. One need look no further back than Michel Gondry’s 2006 The Science of Sleep to see a character detaching himself from the moment and blurring the physical and (day)dream realms. Hell, even Zach Braff on Scrubs went down this road in his own cheesy way. In staying true to Thurber’s story, Stiller had to explore the protagonist’s daydreams, but was trapped by the aforementioned cliché and could only hope to go about it in an original way.

The film, like so many mainstream releases of late, is marred by gratuitous product placement. A conversation between Walter and Cheryl painfully namedrops Papa John’s about five times and Patton Oswalt’s cameo is most memorable for him talking about Cinnabon while eating a Cinnabon. This is particularly disappointing given that Stiller seemed to be going for something
more artful and less commercial with the film. Product placement is not enough to ruin Walter Mitty, a charming, slightly above average flick, but it keeps it a safe distance from the lofty heights it was after.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

NYC Skate Doc ‘We Out Here’ Screens at Nitehawk

WE OUT HERE from Ron Brodie on Vimeo

Out in Brownsville, a group of young skaters are defying cultural biases and building a community of inclusion while coping with the typical horror stories associated with life in the hood. We Out Here, a micro-documentary produced by Mitchell Ware and directed by Ron Brodie, screened for the 2nd time at Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema on Wednesday night courtesy of Airwalk, Harold Hunter Foundation and The Fader, who are now streaming the doc on their site.

After a crowd of skaters, hipsters, and press folks mingled in the exposed brick lobby over open bar booze adjacent to an Airwalk Capsule Collection, theater lights dimmed on a stark monologue from a skater’s mother that provided context for Ware’s portrayal of NYC urban skate culture. The decision to shoot the film entirely in black and white accentuates the odd beauty of kickflips and bench grinds juxtaposed with gritty Brooklyn backdrops.

Centered on eight BK skaters, We Out Here provides snapshots of their daily lives and the hardships they’ve had to endure. A young skater by the name of Sherry Puffin speaks on the two years she spent homeless and what it was like sleeping in shifts with a friend on the train between the Bronx and Brooklyn. Another talented skater, Wade Yates, talks about an annual Father’s Day BBQ held around the corner from his house in Brownsville that gets shot up every year. With little to rely on outside of themselves, these outcasts pick up skateboards and dedicate countless hours to their craft while their peers all too often get tragically caught up in gang violence.

Jessica Forsyth, spokesperson for the Harold Hunter Foundation, took part in a Q&A following the screening and spoke of NYC skate legend Hunter (“…a raunchy individual who died of bad cocaine, but was almost universally loved.”) and the foundation’s mission. We Out Here shows that Hunter’s legacy has lived on and influenced a new generation of disadvantaged Brooklyn skaters finding meaning, opportunity and positive escapism wherever their boards carry them.

Should there be any criticism of We Out Here, it would involve the documentary’s length (a mere 42 minutes) and how it’s a bit light on actual skate footage. Watching Keith White bust a heel manual while being passed a joint is endlessly entertaining, and it’s hard to believe that the cutting room floor isn’t littered with similar greatness.