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 Based on the unpublished memoirs written by Arielle Holmes, who plays herself, the film follows Harley (Holmes), a homeless heroin addict attempting to navigate her personal struggles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.
4. Lenny Cooke (2013)
The Safdie brothers know hoops, as further evidence in Uncut Gems would suggest. In their first documentary, the Safdies chronicle the rise and fall of Lenny Cooke, a former high school basketball prodigy who was at one point ranked higher than LeBron James.
Following the decision to forego playing in college and enter the 2002 NBA Draft, Cooke went undrafted and never played in the league. After playing in American minor leagues and overseas, Cooke’s basketball career was over by 2007.
How exactly does a player seemingly destined for greatness fall so short of his ultimate goal? Through interviews with Cooke’s family, former teammates, mentors, and Cooke himself, the Safdies lay out the tale of a supremely talented athlete who was sold falsities and unrealistic guarantees because of his hooping skills. In the current era of prep players becoming surefire future NBA talents before eighth grade, this film provides a peek behind the current when those assurances fall to the wayside.
Lenny Cooke feels much more grounded than other basketball docs, mainly because the Safdies are so good at presenting intimate moments and extracting “realness” from their subjects. The directors’ clear love of basketball shines through as they combine their knowledge of filmmaking and hoops to make one of the most sobering basketball-centric films in recent memory. If you’re a basketball fan, this is required watching.
3. Daddy Longlegs (2009)
In Daddy Longlegs, the Safdies tell the loosely autobiographical story of Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), a divorced father trying to make the most of two weeks of custody with his two young sons. Multiple outlets and streaming services label the film a “comedy-drama,” although I have trouble distinguishing the comedic aspect. The Safdies are funny guys, and this film does have some comedic moments, but in my opinion, it's often tragic and a bit claustrophobic.
The defining aspect of Daddy Longlegs is the performance of Roland Bronstein, who makes his acting debut in the film. Bronstein is best known as the Safdies' main collaborator, as he’s been an editor on all their features and co-wrote Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What, Good Time, and Uncut Gems. His performance as Lenny is extremely chaotic, and as I said in my Letterboxd review, “The Safdies are masters at crafting flawed protagonists. Lenny, much like Howard Ratner and Connie Nikas, makes the wrong choice every chance he gets.”
While Lenny’s mistakes may not have the same potential for fatality as other Safdies’ protagonists, there’s still depth to them. It’s clear that Lenny yearns to be a great father and give his children a hell of a time whenever he sees them; it makes you root for them. Despite his best efforts, Lenny is simply an imperfect human that struggles to overcome his habits and state of mind. Hits a bit too close to home.
This was the film I watched to complete the Safdies’ filmography, and it’s a Safdie film through-and-through: the close-up shots with a shaky-cam, constant poor decision making, and an incredibly flawed character you probably shouldn’t be cheering so hard for. The roots for their following films are clearly planted in Daddy Longlegs, and if you’re a fan of Gems or Good Time, it’s a hard film to ignore.
2. Good Time (2017)
Recently, my co-host and dear friend Ralph James and I ranked our top-five favorite films of all-time on our weekly podcast, The Fro and The Flow. While the next entry on this list is my favorite film ever, Good Time has also staked its place in my upper echelon of cinema.
Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) has a plan. He, alongside his disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie), plan to rob a bank and flee New York City for Virginia. Like any Safdie brothers film, things don’t go according to plan. After a dye pack explodes in their getaway car, Connie and Nick try evading cops on foot, leading to Nick’s eventual arrest. Desperate to free his brother from custody, Connie sets out on a quest to collect $10,000 and bail Nick out.
Good Time is a thrill ride filled with a synth-heavy, psychedelic score and immaculate performances. Pattinson portrays an incredible scumbag, though you catch yourself rooting for him. The stakes are set so high in such a condensed time frame that your anxiety latches on to Pattinson’s innate shittiness and god-awful decision making.
What might be most impressive about Good Time is the fact that a majority of the cast is made up of non-actors. The therapist at the beginning is a real therapist. The bail bondsman? A real bail bondsman, and, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the movie. They know their roles because they quite literally live them. I’d be remiss to not mention Buddy Duress’ role as Ray, whose description would be a spoiler. It’s truly a shame that Duress has had his acting career derailed because of personal issues, considering how he’s outstanding in Good Time and plays off Pattinson well.
The way that the cinematography and music blend creates such an intensely heightened sense of stress that it leaves you shaken as the end credits roll. It’s amazing how they do it, but the Safdies present an experience comparable to that of a high-thrills roller coaster. Good Time is an exhausting watch in the best way possible. For me, it’s an addicting feeling and something I actively seek out in films. Because I’m so risk-averse in my personal life, I think I feed off the ghastly misfortunes of these characters at their own doing. They just kick so much ass at making movies, man. I can’t get enough.
1. Uncut Gems (2019)
Ah, the crowned jewel. The uncut gem, dare I say. I’m really fucking annoying when it comes to this movie and I’m fully aware of it; I will not apologize. I’ve consciously become the film Twitter “wanna-be-edgy-but-really-just-a-normal-white-dude” asshole that’s obsessed with Uncut Gems. I have multiple pieces of the film’s merchandise hanging from my walls. The Blu-Ray is almost always ready to go on my PS4. My Howard Ratner impression has hailed (some) laughs and plenty of annoyed grimaces. Simply put, I’ve never felt like a film was more personally curated to my interests than Uncut Gems.
As I sat in the theater on Christmas Day and watched brilliance unfold before my eyes, I was in awe. How did they know this is what I’ve always wanted? For starters, it’s the best NBA film ever (sorry, Like Mike). Kevin Garnett as a main character and a plot following the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals? That’s four stars out the gate. Toss in Adam Sandler in a serious role (which was undeservingly barred from Oscar contention), a cameo featuring The Weeknd performing “The Morning,” LaKeith Stanfield, a few “Arrrrno”s, and that’s a masterpiece. In 135 minutes, the Safdies are able to pack in so much energy through larger-than-life characters that somehow feel achingly grounded in reality. Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards, Tilda Swinton’s voice; everyone brings it to the screen like they just held the opal.
Gems creates such a fervent anxiety that never ceases to fade upon rewatching. Howard’s inability to make the right decision when it’s literally right in front of him is painstakingly aggravating and leads to countless “What the fuck are you doing?” moments. I find myself wondering how he could’ve possibly gotten himself into the situation at hand. To make matters worse, the overlapped dialogue makes each conversation that much more overwhelming.
The biggest aide to anxiety is a main character that is heard rather than seen. Daniel Lopatin’s score sends waves through your senses, blaring at the perfect moments and easing into a consistent pinch when necessary. The transcendent synthesizers get your heart beating a bit faster and send your mind into overdrive. To me, it’s the most effective score I’ve ever heard in a film.
It makes perfect sense why Gems turned out the way it did. The Safdies manifested it behind a decade-long creative process that saw numerous changes to the script, NBA leading man (Kobe, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Joel Embiid were all attached), and even starring role (Jonah Hill was initially cast as Howard). From the start, this was the film they set out to make. Each of their other projects were leading up to the cultural moment that was Uncut Gems.
What more can I say about this film? I’ve written multiple articles and held hours-long conversations about it via podcast. Call it a defining trait of my personality, but when a piece of content hits you in the right way, you know it. It’s something you have to embrace.
The Safdie brothers have achieved immense greatness in a relatively short time frame. They’ve achieved success across varying budgets and a pool of actors consisting of real people and the biggest names Hollywood has to offer. There’s no half-assing it with them; from the second the opening titles appear, Josh and Benny go. I couldn’t be more thrilled to see what they have on the horizon.