Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Taxi Driver Week: Five best New York films of the new century

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is the definitive portrait of New York City at its lowest point.

Welcome to Taxi Driver Week at Last Cinema Standing, a week-long celebration of Martin Scorsese's bruising, beautiful modern classic in honor of the film's 40th anniversary and a special screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Two films defined the highs and lows of New York City in the 20th century. Woody Allen’s Manhattan is the black-and-white postcard image of the city. It is a gorgeous love letter filled with romantic overtures and nostalgic glimpses at a past long since gone but still informing our feelings about the world it depicts. Its upper-crust characters stroll through Central Park at night, visit soda fountains, and go to museums. The wealthy and their romantic foibles are the film’s chief concerns, but the city always buzzes with life and energy in the background.

Taxi Driver resides on the other side of the street – the dream that became a nightmare. It is the dirt and grime and hate and ugliness of a world teetering on the brink of destruction. Martin Scorsese films on the same streets Allen did, but Scorsese litters his sidewalks with trash, shows steam pouring out of every sewer grate, and envisions a city slowly circling the drain. It is an angry mess, overflowing with blood and bile. It is barely habitable. It is hell, as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) says.

For better or worse, Manhattan and Taxi Driver are the definitive portraits of that era in New York’s history, but as with all such things, time marches on, and the city has moved beyond both depictions. The city is now high finance and culture war, gentrification and class divide, Disneyland and cemetery. As such, it seems only right to look to the new century for films to define what it is to live in New York City today. In 100 years, audiences could look back on any of these five films and understand what it once meant to be in New York.

25th Hour (directed by Spike Lee; 2002)

Barry Pepper and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 25th Hour
The only one of these films to deal directly with 9/11 (though The Visitor could only be set in a post-9/11 world), 25th Hour bravely explores the stain left on an entire city’s soul. Like Scorsese and Allen, Lee is a quintessential New York filmmaker, and it is fitting he has made perhaps the best film about living in New York City in the aftermath of one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

Adapted by Game of Thrones creator David Benioff from his own novel, the screenplay digs deep below the surface of a city in mourning and unearths the kind of pain that flags and bumper stickers and slogans cannot mask. The story revolves around Monty (the excellent Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before a long prison sentence. To view the city through the eyes of someone who will not see it again until he is an old man is to see it anew. The sights, sounds, and emotions blend together, and the city becomes one magnificent blur.

Even now, nearly 15 years since 9/11, the city still carries those wounds right there on the surface, and the sensory overload Monty experiences has only become more pronounced. The film argues there is no one you can really trust, but if you are going to make it in this life in this city, you have to rely on someone, otherwise you will be swallowed whole.

Chop Shop (directed by Ramin Bahrani; 2007)

Alejandro Polanco in Chop Shop
By the late Roger Ebert’s favorite young director, this was Ebert’s favorite film by Bahrani, and it is easy to see why. All of Bahrani’s films are stories of American lives and what it means to exist on the fringes of the American Dream. No city represents the American Dream more than New York, whose fringes are overflowing with the forgotten, the discarded, and the disillusioned.

Ale is an orphan living with his older sister above an auto-repair shop. They both scrape together any money they can any way they can, mostly through petty crimes. They scrimp and save, get knocked down and get back up, and their only goal is to buy a van they can turn into a food truck. Like everybody else who comes to this city, they just want to make their own way, but fortunes are fickle, and there is no prize for hard work but more work. The city is tough, and so must they be, no matter what stands in their way.

The Visitor (directed by Tom McCarthy; 2008)

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor
Multicultural is a mostly meaningless word now. Where once homogeny was the rule, it is now the exception, and multicultural life is a given. That does not make it any easier for those unwilling to accept the new paradigm. However, for those willing to explore the worlds of others and embrace the melting pot, life becomes a rich tapestry of new experiences and joys. That is the truth at the heart of New York City and the core of Oscar-winning writer-director McCarthy’s superb film.

Walter (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely college professor who returns to his Manhattan apartment to find a pair of illegal immigrants squatting there, though they believed they were renting it legitimately. Of course, Walter has every right to call the authorities or throw them to the curb, but he does not. Instead, he invites them to stay, and in so doing, he drives the loneliness out of his own life and enriches his view of the world.

McCarthy’s script smartly focuses on the small indignities visited upon immigrants trying to eke out a meager existence and the post-9/11 suspicions used to divide people into categories of us and them. The Visitor points the way forward for all of us. We can either push people away based on race, religion, or whatever factor we choose and live out our miserable, lonely lives, or we can embrace change and accept the vibrancy of this world as a wonderful reality.

Shame (directed by Steve McQueen; 2011)

Michael Fassbender in Shame
For those unable or unwilling to reach out, loneliness, isolation, and alienation are facts of life. All the money, power, and beauty in the world cannot make you happy if unhappiness is at the core of your being. Featuring knockout performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan and gorgeous direction by McQueen, Shame is a dark, despairing journey through the life of a man whose dissatisfaction and disaffection spring from wells running deep inside him. He spends every second of the day numbing the pain, but all that leaves him is numb.

Brandon (Fassbender) works in high finance, he lives in an impossibly opulent loft, and he is a sex addict. His sister, Sissy (Mulligan), has her own set of vaguely defined but deeply felt sexual issues. Together, they spiral into desperation and heartache. They are broken people, but as Sissy says to Brandon, that does not make them bad people. The city acts as an amplifier for their vices and allows them to indulge in all manner of self-destruction, but it also creates more noise, drowning out their cries for help.

It is a bleak but accurate depiction of life on this island. It is all too easy to push away those who love us and choose those who do not know us. If we refuse to let people get close, they cannot touch us, but that distance, that space between, leaves its own marks. The hardest part of living in New York City is letting yourself care, letting people in, and letting yourself be open to others. It is a lesson we all must learn at some point, whether or not we are willing to listen.

Frances Ha (directed by Noah Baumbach; 2013)

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Every film on this list features a fairly low-concept premise. They are not overly clever or precious stories. They are not needlessly labyrinthine, nor do they seek to wow you with flash or grandeur. They are stories of real people from across the spectrum of human experience. Perhaps Baumbach and co-writer-star Greta Gerwig’s film speaks to me most because it most closely resembles my experience, if not in the details, then in the feeling.

During the events of the film, Frances (Gerwig) is the age I am now. She has the following conversation with her friend, Benji:

Frances: Do I look old to you?
Benji: No … Yes.
Frances: How old?
Benji: Older than I am.
Frances: Older than 27?
Benji: No. Twenty-seven is old though.

That brief exchange is possibly the best summation of how I feel every day. I do not feel very old – nor very accomplished – but my perception of where I am in life changes with every passing minute. Frances struggles for everything she gets, but at the beginning of the film, she sets her sights so low, the struggle is not worth it. New York City is a beautiful place for exploring who you are and who you want to be, but as Frances learns, it is not enough to figure out who you are. You have to want to be something more. That makes the struggle worth it. That makes New York City worth it.

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