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The Top 10 Best Computer-Generated Sequences in Movies of the Past 25 Years

Paavan

Paavan is an English lit student studying in Toronto. His photography is great. He is so young I'm jealous. He also deactivates his twitter account all the time, which I really respect.
Paavan

I was watching a documentary about the making of Toy Story a few days ago and was struck by the fact that photorealistic computer effects have been part of filmmaking for almost 30 years now. In this somewhat nostalgic mood, I found myself thinking about my favorite ways that filmmakers have used CG imagery; some explorations of the ideological implications of these then-new artificialities, but mostly just neat ways to wow the audience. I’ve written this list so I can talk about some sequences that I find interesting; their ranking here is arbitrary.

Some notes before we begin: I’m defining a ”computer-generated sequence” based on a vague threshold of how much of it uses computer generated imagery. Sadly, this means that something like the T-Rex attack from Jurassic Park or the T-1000 ambush from Terminator 2 don’t quite count.

I’ll also add that, because of the new enormous cost of creating CG imagery, the list is unfortunately homogenous: Mostly filmmakers working from within Hollywood, and as a result, mostly white and male. Sadly, we can’t look to modern studios to fix this issue of representation; on the rare occasion that women and/or people of color are hired for these movies, they’re not always allowed to direct their own set pieces. As this technology gets easier for those with lighter pockets to use, I predict that things will change in the new decade, and that we will see even more indie filmmakers telling interesting stories with CG.

Lastly, and most crucially, I ask readers that they watch the video clips attached to every piece so that they can appreciate the formal choices that I have highlighted with my writing here.
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THE GENTLEMEN: Don’t call it a comeback; Guy Ritchie will be here for years

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

How much would my bro-na fides go up if I admitted that one of my great thrills ever experienced in a movie theater happened during the Guy Ritchie movie Snatch, which I saw at least twice, possibly three times in the winter of 2001? I went along with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as yet another post-Pulp Fiction, post-Trainspotting attempt to make guns and/or fliply executed violence and/or UK accents seem extra-cool. Sure, fine, a fun movie, though in the back of my head I admitted to myself that it wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped. But when Brad Pitt’s Irish-gypsy-boxer entered the ring in the final stretch of Snatch, accompanied by a blast of the then-recent Oasis instrumental track “Fuckin’ in the Bushes,” I was nearly out of my seat. It’s the kind of moment that the internet might well spoil and pre-digest today. In January 2001, I had no idea that Ritchie had one of my favorite Oasis tunes up his sleeve, using it with the exact same badass swagger as the movie a 20-year-old Oasis fan was already playing in his heart.

This is all to say that I have a soft spot for Guy Ritchie, mildly bad boy of the UK film scene and eventual blockbuster director for hire. Though the disastrousness of Revolver and Swept Away (the latter as yet unseen by me, so maybe it’s merely a financial disaster) indicated a downward trajectory swifter than the likes of Robert Rodriguez or Kevin Smith, Ritchie pulled out of his talespin with two hit Sherlock Holmes movies, enjoyably forgettable and forgettably enjoyable; made a genuinely zippy wannabe-blockbuster out of The Man from UNCLE, made a compellingly misguided wannabe-blockbuster out of King Arthur, and a similarly misguided but actual blockbuster out of Aladdin. Aladdin was his biggest global hit by like a billion dollars, but now Guy Ritchie is back, baby, with The Gentlemen: a bit of the old ultraviolence, chaps, in that it is mostly about mostly-English hoodlums punching each other, shooting each other, threatening to punch each other, or threatening to, well, you get the idea.

The thing is, Ritchie has been back before; RockNRolla was his supposed return to form in 2008, a gangster tale with the humor and cheek sapped out. The Gentlemen isn’t quite so dour–there are laugh lines aplenty, capably delivered–but there’s a certain hardness at its center. Not hard-boiled, mind, but something calcified, with some of the dead-stiff philosophizing that turned his Revolver into a barely-walking corpse. Weirdly, that sourness is owned and operated by one Matthew McConaughey, whose presence is typically both more pleased and more pleasing. Here he plays Mickey Pearson, an American expat living in England, making his living as an ambitious and successful weed impresario. But Mickey is ready to exit the business and spend more time with his beloved wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery)—though she seems plenty occupied by her car-customization business. (Telling, that she commands a fleet of all-lady mechanics… who have about a minute of combined screentime, almost as if Ritchie is admitting that he understands how women could easily be a bigger part of his world and wants to make the conscious choice to keep it to one per picture.)

Mickey is getting ready to sell his various secret growth and distribution centers to Matthew (Jeremy Strong), but he’s also fielding some interest from Dry Eye (Henry Golding), at the behest of Dry Eye’s older boss. But the negotiations are framed by Fletcher (Hugh Grant) a sort of freelance bottom-feeder who approaches Mickey’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) with information that requires Fletcher to spin a long, tangled narrative for context (which he has also conveniently provided in screenplay format). A lot of this stuff revels in the fun and needless complications of Ritchie’s earliest films, guided along by Fletcher’s rococo insinuations and occasional rhapsodizing about the magic of shooting on film rather than digital. (OK, Guy.) Though there is some violence, a lot of the movie is talk, and it’s a fun one to listen to, even if Ritchie’s insistence on putting racial slurs in the mouths of his characters (who are racist, to be sure, though not in especially interesting or important ways) is suddenly the most authentically Tarantino-esque thing about him. It’s all just more shit-talk for Ritchie, and a lot of it is disreputably entertaining; Henry Golding is a lot more fun as conniving gangster than a himbo, which is to say the Colin Farrell principle applies here. Twice, actually, because Farrell himself makes an appearance as the requisite Irish boxer, trying to keep a pack of teenage hooligans on the relatively straight and relatively narrow. When he fails, they make YouTube music videos of themselves performing a grime number whilst robbing one of Mickey’s illicit dispensaries.

Toff_Guys_Day_24_173.ARW

Watching this amusingly wacked-out sequence, it struck me that 20 years ago, the gang of YouTube hooligans (or their pre-YouTube equivalents) would be more prominent characters in a Ritchie movie. Here, they’re colorful support, wrangled by Farrell, but far less important to the narrative than characters with vastly better-appointed homes and gardens. Hunnam—not even the kingpin, but his main henchman—begrudgingly entertains the sleazy Fletcher with a smoke-free backyard barbecue, grilling fancy steaks. Instead of scrappy strivers and lowlifes, Ritchie sympathizes with the richer criminals—especially McConaughey’s Mickey, who whinges on about how the lion must (get this) “be the lion” in order to, uh, be the lion. The metaphorical lion, in the metaphorical jungle. Just a slight calibration and this guy would be the pompous jackass

McConaughey lends him some baseline rooting interest, and that’s his job as an actor. But what’s Ritchie’s excuse? Why is he making a cheeky gangster caper that amounts to an enormously wealthy, white, not-even-English dude who makes time for grotesque revenge on a tabloid editor? (Eddie Marsan is in this, too; guess who he plays?) Obviously English tabloids can go fuck themselves, but I’m not sure McConaughey’s character has any high ground that the movie doesn’t hastily and arbitrarily pile up for him. (He deals exclusively in weed! He’s not like a regular drug dealer, he’s a cool drug dealer.)

That’s an awful lot of morality parsing, I know, for a Guy Ritchie movie that aims for a form of cheerful amorality, and truth be told, I was able to roll with much of The Gentlemen. Grant is a delight! Farrell is a delight! Dockery, despite being someone who was on Downtown Abbey, is a delight! Hunnam, so often ill-used in bigger movies, has a commanding scene where he marches into a drug den full of posh miscreants and firmly retrieves one of them on behalf of their family. Half the cast is stylishly bespectacled for some reason. Moral correctness is not especially the point of The Gentlemen, and the movie’s ending even regains some its playfulness by suggesting just how much of this is storytelling for its own sake, more tangled-up screenplay fodder for Fletcher or Ritchie himself. But the cheeky thrill of self-reference (hey, is that a Man from UNCLE poster?) can’t match the Oasis-scored mischief of Snatch, which was self-conscious, sure, but a bit less self-regarding. And maybe it’s just wishful thinking, the fleeting idea that Ritchie might be self-effacing enough to see himself as desperately for-sale Fletcher—instead of the preening, bloviating Mickey. Sometimes, The Gentlemen gives the impression that Ritchie doesn’t consider this a return to form so much as an insistence that no number of flops would dare issue him a comeuppance.

Will UNDERWATER be the last shlocky/awesome Fox genre flick?

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Technically speaking, Underwater, the new waterlogged creature feature starring Kristen Stewart, is a Walt Disney Company release. Disney inherited it when they bought 20th Century Fox, which had been keeping Underwater safely concealed on a shelf for a while now (it completed principal photography back in 2017). The last year has seen several Fox releases that might not have been greenlit post-Disney, but Underwater represents a particularly Fox-like type of movie that will almost certainly cease now that Disney controls their soon-to-shrink pipeline. As Underwater disappears from theaters, so goes the sometimes great, sometimes shlocky tradition of the Fox sci-fi/horror thriller.

Most of the big studios have some kind of sci-fi history, especially now that astronaut movies are all the rage. But beyond Fox’s initial forays into the genre (how are The Day the Earth Stood Still and Fantastic Voyage not on Disney Plus?), beyond even their distribution of the first six Star Wars movies, many of their longest-running movie franchises are sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, Alien, Predator. Sci-fi had such a strong foothold at Fox that even its more recent flagship franchise, the comics-based X-Men series (which has one more offshoot, New Mutants, coming out in April after its own stay on the shelf), often feels as much like a Fox series as a Marvel one—sometimes to the chagrin of Marvel fans, who have come to expect a certain level of consistency and quality control in their superhero movies. X-Men’s mix of genre highlights and major disappointments very much fits in with the Apes, Alien, and Predator sagas.
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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (and The Mandalorian)

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Star Wars is over, again, and also not at all. But the most recent Star Wars trilogy has indeed ended with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. After taking in the movie somewhere between one and three times, your SportsAlcohol.com rebel alliance got together to talk about Rise of Skywalker, as well as the recently concluded first season of The Mandalorian. How did J.J. Abrams do in finishing off the trilogy he started, and the nine-film series he certainly didn’t start? How much do we love Babu Frik? And how can we avoid comparing this new movie to The Last Jedi? The answers to these questions and more await you in this epic but fleet new installment of our Star Wars podcast trilogy.

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The SportsAlcohol.com Mixtape: The Rise of Skywalker

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

The SportsAlcohol.com nerd core will be podcasting about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker soon enough (by which we mean, in a week or two). But in the meantime, with the movie’s commercial premiere just hours away, we made you a mixtape. Two years ago, we opened up a weird high school tradition to the world (or at least the SportsAlchol.com audience) by offering thirty-plus minutes of get-psyched mix-em-ups, to be listened to on your way to see a Star Wars movie. We’ve done the same for Episode IX, and I hope you enjoy it. (You can also download the never-before-officially-released Force Awakens mixtape here.)

As before, there are general instructions and a trivia component. The instructions are easy: about 35 minutes before you roll into your theater of choice to see The Rise of Skywalker hit “play” on the downloadable mp3, or the stream linked below.

Here’s the trivia part: This mix contains a lot of songs and samples. Some of them relate directly to Star Wars; most of those connections should be obvious, even if you don’t immediately recognize their origin. BUT: the rest of the songs and samples (that is, the non-Star Wars majority of the mix) have something in common. What is it?

The answer is relatively broad, so bonus points if you can go into more detail using specific examples.

A correct answer will get you a shout-out on our next Star Wars podcast!

In the meantime, enjoy getting psyched for the movie, and may the force be, well, you know.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Black Christmas Through the Years

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

The SportsAlcohol.com podcast isn’t always a vehicle for up-to-the-minute new-release movie reviews, but about once a year, around the holidays, apparently that changes. Last year, Ben and Jesse talked about Second Act; this year, ’tis the season for Black Christmas. A new 2019 version of the 1974 proto-slasher classic is hitting theaters this weekend, so Jesse and special guest slash podcast expert Becca took this opportunity to go through the Black Christmases that preceded it. In this holiday rundown, we look at the very different 1974, 2006, and 2019 incarnations of Black Christmas and try to sort through our reactions. Who will survive this holiday splatterfest?! (Becca thinks it might be her; listen in for her explanation of why she’s safe from horror-movie fears, at least for now.)

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

Forget Widescreen: THE REPORT, WAVES, and this fall’s aspect ratio status symbols

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

The Report, a new film written and directed by Scott Z. Burns and produced by Steven Soderbergh, has been shot in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. A few years ago, this would have seen more or less standard. Of course, some movies are composed in anamorphic widescreen while others opt for the less expansive 1.85:1, but just as 1.85 became the common wider-than-TV frame in the 1950s, 2.35 or 2.39 have become quite common in the era of flatscreen TVs (which are closer to the 1.85 ratio), a default “cinematic” look now that so much TV has widened out. This fall, I’ve noticed that many of the season’s most interesting and ambitious movies aren’t bothering with super-wide compositions at all. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is in 1.85 (like some of his older movies); the Shining sequel Doctor Sleep is, too (like the original’s theatrical release), and so are Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, and Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. Some recent releases go further: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is in 1.66, the New York Film Festival debut First Cow uses 1.33, and The Lightouse is in the super-old-timey 1.19. Meanwhile, the movies that stay wider for their entire running times are the chintzier likes of Zombieland 2, Last Christmas, and, yes, Jexi. There are plenty of reasons a director might not want to automatically use 2.35, but it’s still a fascinating switch, even if it’s a coincidental one. Is this a reaction to the easy availability of Widescreen Content? Does anamorphic widescreen now somehow signify a movie going through the motions of visual interest while remaining mostly indifferent?
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NYFF57: The crime stories of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and OH MERCY!

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Though it was far from the most acclaimed film of this year’s main slate, it made sense for the 57th New York Film Festival to close with Motherless Brooklyn. The NYFF is the a major festival-season gathering that still feels a little bit local, and as such, has an unofficial but clear obligation to its hometown. That was evident in the opening night selection (Scorsese!), the centerpiece selection (Baumbach!), the quasi-secret screening (Safdies!), and a reoriented version of Motherless Brooklyn that takes place in the 1950s instead of the Jonatham Lethem novel’s then-contemporary 1990s.

Brooklyn had a particular weight on it this year because Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, while set in a familiar Classic Scorsese milieu, is not actually a New York crime picture—it’s more of a tri-state area affair. Uncut Gems (as yet unseen by me) is legit NYC, but it wasn’t an officially announced main-slate attraction. So that leaves Edward Norton’s passion project as the crime movie representing New York City, playing alongside The Irishman (skulking around Philadelphia and New Jersey) and Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! (set in the French city of Roubaix).
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NYFF57: The Past Lives in FIRST COW and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, both of which just played the 57th New York Film Festival, are not exactly set contemporaneously, but they’re not too far apart, at least from our contemporary vantage. Portrait unfolds over a few days toward the end of the 18th century, while First Cow is relatively early in the 19th, around 1820. They’re also set thousands of miles apart, First Cow remote (the Oregon territory) and Portrait, in some ways, remoter (the coast of France, in and around a well-appointed but seemingly isolated house). And superficially, they don’t have much in common beyond that remoteness, and an accompanying ender segregation. First Cow features only a few women, while Portrait of a Lady on Fire has almost no men.

A man, mostly unseen, nonetheless looms over the story of Portrait, told as a flashback from Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter and art teacher, prompted by a student’s question. Years earlier, Marianne is sent to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), so that the resulting picture may be sent to a potential husband, to seal the deal on an official marriage proposal (the painting will convey mostly Héloïse’s physical presence, and she is a terribly attractive woman). It feels like a formality, but it’s one that Héloïse will not sit for; upon her arrival, Marianne learns that she’s accepted a stealth assignment. She will pose as a companion for Héloïse, observe her, and paint her portrait in secret. The movie gets right into Marianne’s point of view, and her painter’s eye for detail; you can see her observing Héloïse’s hands, her earlobes, the back of her neck. Eventually also her face; Adèle Haenel is given a “you were expecting someone else?” face-reveal introduction.
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Ad Astra, or: Why Don’t I Like James Gray Movies More?

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

James Gray is having a moment. His 25-year career as a writer-director encompasses seven movies, many well-reviewed and almost all underseen, but despite the ever-shrinking audience for critically acclaimed art movies or even just movies made for adults uninterested in superheroes, despite one of his best-loved movies getting the Harvey Weinstein spiteful-shelving treatment, Gray is getting more movies made now than ever. Ad Astra is his latest, arriving just two and a half years after The Lost City of Z, with $80 million worth of big-studio backing from Fox, movie-star backing from Brad Pitt, and a 3,400-screen release—easily the widest in his filmography, which has just one other movie that played more than 1,000 screens (We Own the Night, which came out 12 years ago). A recent New Yorker profile goes deep, and glowing, on his methods, his work, and the cultish adoration it’s attracted. It’s enough to make a Gray skeptic feel downright heretical.

This is absurd, of course; by most measures, Gray remains an underdog, as even some of his fans have anticipated, mock-gleefully, the bafflement with which general audiences will greet Ad Astra, which is a space adventure movie, yes, but a very James Gray one, in which a taciturn Brad Pitt searches the outer reaches of the cosmos for his presumed-dead astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). The adventuring is quixotic and melancholy, like it was in Gray’s The Lost City of Z, though not all of its touchstones are as lofty as the oft-cited Apocalypse Now. Gray’s portrayal of the moon, sort of a commercially accessible weigh station with an Applebee’s and bands of moon pirates, owes a debt (consciously or not) to the moon-set episode of Futurama. The casting of Jones and also Donald Sutherland brings to mind Space Cowboys (which, I must stress, rules). Where the movie earns its 2001 and Apocalypse Now comparisons are the visuals, which are often stunning: never overdesigned or fussy, often spare and evocative, the complicated mechanics of space travel simplified and sometimes abstracted. The moon is depicted almost entirely in gray, black, and splashes of gold. Color-bathed corridors are both gorgeous and oppressive. Space has been depicted as beautiful and lonely before, but Ad Astra makes it feel scary, solitary, and otherworldly even in comparison to other space movies. It’s like am unsettling dream someone had after watching Gravity.

In other words: How the hell did I not like this movie more?

This happens almost every time I watch a James Gray picture: The distinct sense that what’s on screen has been well-crafted, that the subject matter appeals to me in theory, that the actors are performing with grace and subtlety, and that it is not really working for me on an emotional or narrative level. (Though Lost City of Z comes closer than most.) In Ad Astra, almost everyone speaks in hushed, even tones; their souls ache, but no one seems especially fussed about the possible destruction of Earth, which is why Pitt’s spaceman is sent to find his dad in the first place. Our glimpse into his psyche isn’t a glimpse at all—blurry faces are a recurring visual motif—but an eavesdropping on his thoughts via some sub-Malickian narration, the kind of explanatory muck that drops line about the sins of the father being revisited upon the son about an hour after you’ve said to yourself, got it, this is a sins-of-the-father type of thing.

There’s been some speculation that the narration was added during the movie’s apparently extended post-production process, maybe against Gray’s objections. If it’s either his original work or his patchwork solution to executive concerns, it’s both baffling and consistent with his weaknesses; writing has never been his strong suit. In a movie like Two Lovers, the stilted dialogue feels, at least, of a piece with his characters’ struggles to communicate, and maybe that’s always supposed to be the case. Certainly a level of clumsy formality in speech has been accepted as a stylistic tic for the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, Woody Allen, countless others. But those filmmakers usually get dinged for their clunkiness; Gray seems immune, even though he often makes what amounts to extraordinarily talky silent movies.

Granted, I tend to think too much emphasis is placed on writing in movies, especially dialogue. There are filmmakers who can create their own distinctive music out of it—Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach, Leslye Headland, Wes Anderson—and outside of that realm, it doesn’t much matter to me if James Cameron gets a little dorky or Joe Swanberg leaves his actors in charge of it. But it’s not just Gray’s ponderous obviousness that gets me. It’s the way that he self-consciously toys with familiar narratives, making adventure movies about loneliness or melodramas with the veneer of history or romances where romance solves nothing. Again, it all sounds pretty great in theory, but it often robs his movies of momentum, especially when it becomes clear where they’re going early on.

We Own the Night, his cops-and-crooks thriller, plays like an outline of a satisfying crime picture. The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant in 1920s Manhattan, put its star through a simulacra of suffering not so far removed from an Oscar hopeful. In Ad Astra, we’re meant to feel for the alienation and disappointment of the Pitt character, and his failed marriage to a non-character played by Liv Tyler, seen mostly looking sad and making her exit. Maybe this is concise, visual storytelling—or maybe it’s an astronaut-family cliché played out with a barely-written character.

Given the effectiveness of his more genre-y moments—the superb rain-soaked car-chase in We Own the Night; a shoot-out with moon pirates in Ad Astra—his insistence on paring his stories down to a kind of quietly masculine anguish feels perverse. Despite the real possibility for audience puzzlement, Ad Astra is one of his more accessible movies, because it does deliver some spooky, otherworldly space-travel suspense, chased with that sense of crushing loneliness. I’m not sorry I saw it and may well watch it again at some point. But everything Gray observes in the movie feels like a foregone conclusion, maybe because so much of it, whether we’re watching Pitt grapple with his dad’s remoteness or maybe commit de facto serial murder, proceeds with a kind of dully declarative evenness. I’m told he’s interrogating notions of masculinity, but mostly he seems to be making it kind of boring. I spend a lot of time during Gray’s movies wondering if there’s a reference I’m not getting.

Filmmakers like Tarantino have been charged with an inability to see beyond that frame of (movie) reference—of constructing an alternate reality super-saturated with movie-world ephemera and little resemblance to reality as we know it. But I’ve never felt especially puzzled by Tarantino’s references, or smothered by that referential quality; his movies are easy enough to take at face value, and too engaging for me to wonder if he’s “really” just cribbing moments from other movies that did it first (I tend to doubt it—and even if he is, that’s so much harder than it looks). Maybe that’s because Tarantino plays more to the cheap seats; maybe the cheap seats is where I hang out, wondering what’s the big deal about with the unshowy grace of James Gray.

I have similar feelings about Todd Haynes, another filmmakers who does pastiche-riffing with obviously encyclopedic film knowledge. But I can recognize a few times when I’ve found Haynes’ work genuinely touching; I may not adore the restraint of Carol, but it has a tactility that bursts through its immaculate restraint—that tension between its lush beauty and its rougher 16mm grain.

In my less charitable moments, I think that a lot of critics tend to prize restraint sometimes to the point of treating it as an end unto itself. I wouldn’t suggest that’s what’s going on with the notion that James Gray has delivered any masterpieces, let alone as many as three or four in a row; obviously there’s a resonance about his work that touches people, and more than anything, I’m continually disappointed when it doesn’t reach me. I would suggest, though, that he’s uncommonly talented in convincing at least part of the audience that his symbols and images and references mean more because the movies around them are so unadorned. That’s what I see in between the gorgeous compositions and evocative moods and well-wrought performances: an extended tribute to, not interrogation of, the value of impeccably sourced masculine restraint.