There are currently just over eight million people living in the five cramped boroughs that make up the most famous and talked about place in the world. From its iconic towering skyline to the copious amount of trash piled high along its dirty sidewalks, New York City is a place prickling with charisma and glamour. The alluring spell of the City lends all of its diverse inhabitants provocative and alluring energy, making New Yorkers some of the most fascinating people on the planet.
Two such noteworthy inhabitants are the Safdie Brothers, a maverick pair of filmmaking siblings, who have used their intrinsic New York charm to penetrate the film industry. Their anxiety-inducing, neo-realist depictions of characters existing inside the very city that raised them, are as equally enticing as they are repellent. Through a nearly devout commitment to capturing realism, the Safdies puppeteer our emotions, perversely infatuating us with their sordid cinematic realities; once held in the vice-like grip of their vagrant characters, we are unable and unwilling to escape. With neurotic wit and unbridled energy, the Safdies focus on self-serving protagonists who exist inside a hell of their own creation—managing to frame each self-centred individual in a way that makes us care deeply for each of them, without straying too far into overly sympathetic territory. Although their films may feel chaotic, Josh and Benny’s presence looms large over each production: by taking up roles in directing, acting, sound, writing and editing, they are able to smear their fingerprints over every frame.
Cheeky and meddlesome, it’s impossible not to find Josh and Benny endlessly endearing and likeable. Listen to them speak and try not to alight with the same spark of chaotic energy they exude as they continuously interrupt one another like excitable children, babbling on about their crafty techniques and their favourite movies. They are endearing as both hands-on filmmakers, like Benny, who insists on holding the boom mic during every scene, and as brothers, like Josh, when he affectionately pulls on Benny’s ear whenever he says something smart.
To put their unique work in order of quality and calibre feels like a task existing outside the realm of possibility. Still, in this edition of Ranked, we odyssey through the vibrant worlds of the Safdie Brothers, trying to find some semblance of order among the pandemonium.
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Honourable Mention – The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)
Directed by Josh Safdie alone, The Pleasure of Being Robbed is an early peep at the budding talents of one half of the extraordinary sibling duo.
The movie follows Eleonore (Eleonore Hendricks), a young woman with a meddlesome desire to take things that do not belong to her. Eleonore is an opportunist with a finely tuned instinct to wriggle herself out of the trouble she pathologically gets herself into. We watch her meander through New York City’s bustling streets, brazenly working out how far she can push the people she encounters, all the while sizing them up for treasures they might possess. Eleonore’s prizes come in many forms, a handful of grapes, a sackful of kittens, the stuff rattling around in the bottom of a stranger’s handbag—each item more alluring and dazzling to her than money, which doesn’t seem to interest her at all. The film’s directionless narrative often threatens to get in the way of itself, yet, before the staleness of her inconsequential activity can catch up with her, Eleonore is already onto her next small adventure.
With its low production value, small budget and naturalistic (if not improvised) dialogue, The Pleasure of Being Robbed shares the spirit of early Mumblecore movies; although not as self-conscious or subdued, the essence of that DIY style of filmmaking lingers throughout. While the film lacks the immersive style and unbearable tension that will become synonymous with Josh Safdie in his later work, his first feature perpetuates the merits of independent filmmaking, reminding us that aesthetically pleasing, art-house cinema can be as compelling as big-budget blockbusters.
The film is a fun glimpse at the evolving talents of Josh Safdie and is worth checking out to see him perform in an acting role—in which he steals the show, radiating unparalleled levels of cute energy in the world’s goofiest hat.
5. Lenny Cooke (2013)
This 2013 sports documentary follows Lenny Cooke, a promising young basketball player who was once ranked higher than NBA megastars LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. In archival footage, we watch as Lenny announces, his eyes filled with tears, that he will be entering the 2002 NBA draft. Partly through circumstance, partly through his own mistakes and against the expectations of his friends, players and peers, Lenny goes undrafted, thus beginning his downward spiral into a pit of failure and dead-end dreams.
The footage, primarily made up of abandoned documentary footage, home-movies, news segments and basketball coverage, tells a tragic tale of a budding talent who finds that fame and success are just that tiny bit out of his reach. In the third act of the documentary, the Safdies pick up with Cooke, who has since grown up and started a family. In their affectionate footage, we see a man who has found peace with his failed dreams. Lenny, surrounded by his friends and family, singing R&B songs to his fiancé, is a million miles away from the NBA, yet, presented to us through the fresh eye of a Safdie brother’s lens, it’s hard to imagine that he belongs anywhere else.
There is something for everyone in this melancholic documentary, even if your entire knowledge of basketball comes from the movie Space Jam. The Safdies’ deep-rooted obsession with the sport shines through, making Cooke’s world just as fascinating as any of their narrative features. The documentary speaks to Josh and Benny’s dynamic ability to tell cinematic tales regardless of the medium.