Half-Year Awards — Best Screenplays, Director, and Film

You know the preamble. Let’s just dive right in:

Noah

Best Adapted Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel, Noah

A lot of people hate the story in Noah. It’s too bastardized, they say. Damn straight, I say. The story of Noah doesn’t belong to the Bible. It was around long before, transmuted into a plethora of different stories across different cultures that highlight contrasting details. Noah never adopts an orphan in the Bible. This is a reference to Korean flood mythology. There are no giants in the Bible’s Noah. This is a Midrashic conceit that belongs to certain sects of Judaism. Noah doesn’t contemplate exterminating his grandchildren in the Bible. This sequence combines reflections of other Biblical books – the jettisoned baby in Exodus, the crisis of faith in Job, and most importantly the tale of Abraham in Genesis.

There are countless other details from a variety of other religions folded into Aronofsky’s retelling of Noah. It creates a Frankenstein’s monster of a myth, housing itself inside Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions alike and vibrantly socially aware of the moment in time it arrives in our world.

Feel free to hate it for not being accurate to your interpretation of Noah, but Noah was never yours to begin with. Neither is it Aronofsky’s or Handel’s, and their patchwork retelling reminds us that it’s not so much the detail in the story that’s important – those details are completely different for everybody – but it’s the common meaning those various interpretations seek to teach us that is crucial.

The narrative details aren’t sacred. They’re just as bastardized in the Bible as they are out of it. The meanings are sacred. The world’s done a horrible job of getting this through its head. We argue about the length of Noah’s ark and its width and what wood it was made from and how he fed the animals while we ignore that in all those stories, God sends down the flood because we were annihilating each other and so lost in petty bickering we ignored the needs of the helpless among us. Understand that before you come at Noah complaining it’s not accurate enough.

Devoutness of detail can often be a useless habit. Give me a new interpretation that reminds me of the old meaning any day of the week.

The Rover lead

Best Original Screenplay: Joel Edgerton & David Michod, The Rover

We so rarely get short stories on film anymore. Our movies today sprawl, like labyrinths meant to make the biggest and most widely talked-about mark on our social calendars. Every character gets his or her own realization mid-plot, so we can check the character development box off the list and justify a dozen different character-specific posters. Even in our blockbusters, two sides aren’t enough anymore. I like my seven-sided, choatic end-battles, believe me, but there are only so many writers and filmmakers who can truly hack that.

What about the short story? What about visiting a time and place for just a moment, getting just a glimpse? What about leaving us wanting to know more? Many of our works of art have forgotten how to shield their characters from us. Characters are thrown at us with gadgets and costume changes and sidekicks for spinoffs. That’s fine…so long as we don’t forget those other movies, the ones that contain characters we should never want to see again, or that we should wish to save, or that we should pity, or that we should hate. Sometimes all at once. The Rover visits a time and place we should never want to see and delivers characters we should never want to meet. It stays long enough so that we begin to care what happens anyway, that we begin to understand why someone might be a way we never could be ourselves, and then it exits gracefully.

Like The Proposition a decade before, which also starred Guy Pearce, it crafts a haunting story from an elegant blend of poetic dialogue, stark visual, and simple structure. In a short story, every word matters. So, too, in The Rover. Every word, every shot, every cut matters, and builds to a whole at just the right moment – the second before the credits roll. It forces you to take a piece of that time and place you’d never visit back with you into the real world, to contrast the two, to be terrified at their similarities and joyous at their differences. It’s a staggering work that demands tears and silence and reverence. The Rover is a fire-and-brimstone sermon in the church of film.

Under the Skin

Best Director: Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin

My choice for this at the end of last year was Alfonso Cuaron for his pioneering work in Gravity. At least until I saw Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. But that’s another essay. This year, it’s the polar opposite of those two directors. Instead of Cuaron’s painstaking cinematic techniques, so groundbreaking they demanded new inventions, and instead of Wong Kar-Wai’s precise, artistic framing (nearly every shot is so painterly it’s worthy of its own essay), Glazer is much more hands-off. He gathered a wild array of fringe talent and let them go wild.

In various Guardian articles, and in my own interview with author Michel Faber, who wrote the novel on which the film Under the Skin is based, Glazer’s loose, guerrilla approach to filmmaking began to take shape: Conversations with passersby recorded on hidden camera. Covert microphones hidden in umbrellas picking up stray conversation on the streets of Edinburgh. An FX studio let loose to envision an alien’s digestive tract in visual metaphor. Documentarian shots of both nature and civilization. An experimental rock musician asked to score it all.

What Glazer does is invite chaos into his movie, trusting himself enough to shape it. The result is a mash of experimental techniques fused into a powerful whole. These diverse technical experiments shine through so much that you can even see how contributors’ interpretations agree and disagree. It’s rare that so loose and experimental an approach results in a film so tight and complete. The most difficult part of directing is knowing when to control chaos and knowing when to unleash it. For mastering the balance, at least for this film, Glazer does something just as impressive as inventing new technologies or framing everything with painterly perfection.

Under the Skin lead

Best Film: Under the Skin

Any other year, this wouldn’t be a contest. It would be The Rover with nothing else close. But Under the Skin is the best film we’ve had in many years, the most challenging, the one that does something film is very often incapable of doing. Many films put you in someone else’s shoes. Almost none trick you into filling out the shoes of a sociopath and rapist. The film has such command of allegory, it truly makes you stop and contemplate a perspective that’s (hopefully) completely alien to you, and it transports you very uncomfortably outside of your own realm of sensation and experience.

Also take a look at our Half-Year Technical Awards and our Half-Year Acting Awards.

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