My evolution into, as some like to say, a “movie snob,” has been a well-documented journey. For some, it’s been a grueling experience attempting to pick something to watch as I grimace at a majority of suggestions. Personally, I’ve loved every second as I venture through the medium’s vast landscape, discovering new favorite films, directors, and actors on a near-weekly basis. My New Year’s resolution is to be less of an asshole and open my mind to more movies.
I often credit Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, as my inceptive descent into cinematic madness. Something clicked as I sat inside Marcus Sycamore Cinema in Iowa City. There’s a pair of brothers, however, that pushed me off the edge and into insanity: Josh and Benny Safdie. Following my initial viewing of Good Time, I sought out every podcast and profile covering the directors. Since that fateful night, they’ve crafted my all-time favorite film (Uncut Gems) and have become my most-idolized creators in the entire industry.
The Safdie brothers’ filmography doesn’t feature a single film that I don’t like; in my opinion, they’re five-for-five from the field. Their ability to curate stories and characters around their exclusive backdrop, New York City, has led to some of the most memorable releases of the last five years. It’s been a few months since I completed their filmography, and after a few repeat viewings, it only felt right to rank the films that have made a profound impact on me.
5. Heaven Knows What (2014)
“Would you forgive me if I died?”
Heaven Knows What is not for the faint of heart; for 97 minutes, it plunges you into the heart of addiction on the streets of New York City. Based on the unpublished memoirs written by Arielle Holmes, who plays herself, the film follows Harley (Holmes), a homeless heroin addict attempting to navigate her personal struggles and rocky relationship with her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who is also an addict. After a suicide attempt puts her in a psychiatric hospital, Harley starts hanging around Mike (Buddy Duress), providing her with a place to stay and access to heroin. Only leading to further tension with Ilya, who’s becoming increasingly unstable and erratic, Harley’s life becomes further entrenched in turmoil.
It’s an intense tale of love, loss, and personal demons. The film is primarily shot on handheld cameras and with the classic Safdie close-up, Heaven Knows What often feels like a documentary. Holmes’ performance of her life story powerfully lends to the effectiveness of the unfiltered truth, as she was a homeless heroin addict when she was discovered in the Diamond District by Josh Safdie while doing research for Uncut Gems. As she’s recreating events that happened to her, Holmes helped to create the documentary feel of the film; nobody else could’ve truly filled the role as well.
Caleb Landry Jones gives a heartbreaking performance as an addict starting to lose control in agonizing fashion. The moments of vulnerability and pure agony displayed by Jones are gripping and believable, always delivering an impact while on screen. Another actor that makes the most of his presence is Buddy Duress, who played a major role in the Safdie's 2017 feature, Good Time. Duress, who has been in and out of Rikers Island, has a screen presence that’s unforgettable.
It’s the only Safdie brothers film that I haven’t returned to. Not because it’s a bad movie (it’s really good); it’s just their most distressing work. The Safdies are masters at stressing out audiences, but have yet to do so in a way as desolate as Heaven Knows What.