2. Good Time (2017)
Having captured the attention of Twilight megastar Robert Pattinson with a single pink-hued frame of Heaven Knows What, Josh and Benny Safdie found themselves once again distracted from their dreams of making a movie set in New York’s vivacious Diamond District. Instead, the brothers faced the task of making one of Hollywood’s most alluring leading men disappear inside the ultra-realist narrative of a Safdie Brothers production.
The movie was a considerable step-up for the brothers, who had grown used to forgoing big budgets and filming permits to make films off the momentum of their native New York wit. With the aid of an extensive background story, Robert Pattinson brings one of New York’s most deplorable scumbags to life; the sparkling teen vampire of his youth well and truly smothered underneath Connie’s box dyed hair, crude urban fashion and quick-fire Queens accent.
Taking place over one tumultuous night, Good Time is a gritty pulp thriller with which the Safdies demonstrate their acute ability to make insidious genre fiction. After a blundered attempt to rob a bank, we follow Connie Nikas on a feverish, high stakes odyssey through Manhattan and Queens as he tries to rescue his brother from the infamous Rikers Island. As we follow him down into the seedy abyss of his obsessive mission, we realise that this unrelenting existence is all Connie knows. Tensions build in the most unusual places: listening to Buddy Duress deliver a rapid-pace monologue in a White Castle car park is nothing short of Shakespearean. Constructed of intense close-ups and infrequent wide shots, the film takes on a claustrophobic quality, firmly trapping us inside Connie’s sordid world.
The Safdies’ precision-like finesse alongside Pattinson’s nuanced performance, Sean Price Williams’ psychedelic camerawork, Buddy Duress’ disturbing street smarts and Daniel Lopatin’s hallucinatory score, make Good Time one of the most compelling films of recent times.
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1. Uncut Gems (2019)
In Howard, we trust.
The road to Uncut Gems was a long one for the Safdies, who dedicated ten years of their lives to bringing their beloved Howard Ratner to the big screen. It took around one hundred and fifty drafts, extensive amounts of research in New York City’s Diamond District, Martin Scorsese’s influence and two unexpected side-projects before Josh and Benny were ready to begin production. Not to mention the years of relentless badgering it took to get Adam Sandler to step out of his comfort zone and into a pair of Gucci loafers.
Uncut Gems isn’t just a movie; the film is a physical experience that will leave you yearning for a lie down in a quiet room. We hold on for dear life as we follow Howard Ratner on a gambling pilgrimage that will see him risk the very foundations of his life. The film centres around the sale of a rare Ethiopian Opal, which Howard, a bling jewellery salesman, believes offers him an exit route out of an ever-growing black hole of gambling debts and personal troubles. Like all of The Safdies’ main protagonists, his world exists in a delicate balance, one misstep and the control he clings to would slip away. Although we might have grown used to The Safdies’ deplorable depictions of New York City’s empathetic low lives, when combined with Darius Khondji’s magnifying cinematography and Daniel Lopatin’s palpitating score, their work feels fresher than ever before.
The Safdies used a motley crew of New York natives to play the film’s secondary characters; the stand out being Julia Fox, who makes a dazzling acting debut, playing a sensationalised version of her own personality in the role of Howard’s girlfriend, Julia. When Howard kicks her out of their apartment, Julia leaves Madonna’s “Rain” playing at full blast; reaching levels of drama we only wish we could achieve. Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield and Idina Menzel also deliver stunning performances, as does The Weeknd, whose beautiful voice offers a singular moment of respite from the constant barrage of havoc.
Uncut Gems is an extreme physical and mental experience, an exquisite dance between tension and relief, and an era-defining piece of cinema.