The Best of BlackBook’s 2012 Film Coverage

2012 was an interesting year for cinema—whether it be Hollywood franchise blockbusters, independent stage-play-turned-comedies , or haunting and heartbreaking foreign dramas. In the first half of the year, we saw young filmmakers such as a Brit Marling, Benh Zeitlin, and Leslye Headland debut their innovative and fresh take on modern stories, with films that established them as unique new voices of independent American cinema. Hollywood staples David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and Whit Stillman once again pleased audiences and won critical praise for their idiosyncratic features. And then there were the beautifully guttural foreign films from Michael Haneke, Miguel Gomes, and Leos Carax that constantly reinvent, not only what film can be, but the experiential nature of cinema as well. 

So as the year draws to a close and we begin to anticipate next year’s film slate, here’s the best in BlackBook’s film coverage of the past twelve months—highlighting our favorite films of 2012 that will linger on in history and the one’s to breakout next year’s biggest stars.

Holy Motors
Silver Linings Playbook

Damsels in Distress

Django Unchained

Moonrise Kingdom
The Deep Blue Sea
The Queen of Versailles
Beasts of the Southern Wild

Sound of My Voice
Wuthering Heights

The Loneliest Planet
Sleepwalk with Me

Beware of Mr. Baker
Anna Karenina
The Imposter

The Snowtown Murders
The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Billy Magnussen Strips, Kisses Sigourney Weaver, And Shacks Up With A ‘Gossip Girl’ Guy

A sort of blond Adonis, 27-year-old actor Billy Magnussen is not only chiseled to Ken doll perfection; he’s also quite a riot. Especially in his ongoing stage engagement, assuming the role of wannabe actor Spike in playwright Christopher Durang’s latest work, the poignant and amusing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Indeed, Magnussen takes Lincoln Center Theater by storm, self-described as a “bull in a china shop,” attracting laughs with the delivery of his hilarious lines and smiles—and stares—with several instances of near nudity.

Performing shirtless is nothing new to the young actor, who in 2008 joined As The World Turns, taking over the character of Casey Hughes, who just so happened to be topless a lot of the time. Between then and now, Magnussen has appeared on the big screen (think Damsels In Distress, among others) as well as on some of TV’s biggest hits, such as Boardwalk Empire, CSI, Law & Order, and In Plain Sight. Yes, this kid’s got the chops, the mug, and the bod to command jobs any up-and-coming actor would be thrilled to land. Plus, he mans the bass guitar in a rock band called Reserved For Rondee, which regularly jams in music clubs around NYC.

Magnussen has the rare honor now to call David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver his colleagues, as they, along with a wonderfully funny and endearing Kristine Nielsen (whose impression of Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith alone is reason enough to secure tickets), make up the mass of VSMS. Directed by Nicholas Martin and produced in association with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton (where it opened in September) this touching Chekhov-esque parody has just been extended to January 20 at LTC, and I highly recommend attending. If nothing else, Magnussen’s boy toy to Weaver’s cougar presents a romantic-meets-raunchy pairing that must be seen to be believed.

Magnussen, whom I’d prefer to refer to as Billy, because we’re friends, came by for coffee last week to discuss this theatrical venture I dare say New York Magazine would deem “Highbrow” and “Brilliant.” Between sneezes (he’s allergic to my “catty-cat,” as he nicknamed the feline foster staying with me), Billy shared some fun stuff, from the story behind his wrist tattoo to the surprising ritual that sometimes takes place backstage between scenes.

Something that perhaps doesn’t adequately come across in what follows, however, is this: Billy really throws himself into this Spike guy, giving dimension to a somewhat self-congratulatory climber type. He makes despicable also attractive, redeeming even. There’s a lot of Billy in Spike, which those who know him well will agree shines through in the best possible ways. That attitude, that talent, that laugh. Billy’s bud or not, I sincerely suggest seeing this lovely little show in this intimate environment. You never know where it could be headed next.

What’s the story behind this wrist tattoo?
I was with friends out partying and they’re like, “Let’s all get tattoos!” And I was like, “Okay, let’s go.” [They said,] “Billy, you go first.” I got a tattoo and they’re like, “Eh, we’re not gonna get tattoos.”

You were the only one?!
I was the only one!

A permanent “friendship” bracelet.
I guess! At least this reminds me my friends are assholes. [Laughs]

I’d be pissed. So, onto something more relevant, how did you get involved with this play?
I auditioned. I auditioned five times. It started with just the casting director, then the director, then the writer, then producers, that kinda thing.

Were you nervous?
No, because the character isn’t nervous. He’s just chaos in the room. I remember there was a piano, and I just started playing the piano [proceeds to imitate playing piano] for no reason.

[Laughs] Was it difficult stripping down to your skivvies? I suppose not with your ample exposure, shall we say, on As The World Turns
No. Getting into shape was the difficult part. I don’t even think about [taking off my clothes] anymore. The sooner the better. Just get over that hump. Whatever.

Do you have a specific workout routine?
It varies. I was training for a triathlon for a while and that’s really advantageous to getting in shape.

Oh, I bet. What do you eat to stay fit and trim?
Raw vegetables all the time. I usually start the morning with an apple and five strawberries. Then, like, two raw vegetables for lunch and a white meat, like fish, [with more raw vegetables] for dinner. I love broccoli, peppers. If [I] get hungry [I] eat dill pickles or Wasa Crackers.

Keep in mind, protein is readily available (and absorbable) from plant-based sources. No meat necessary. Anyway, have you been hating the diet?
No. Also, I have a pretty big vitamin regimen. I love B12!

That’s too funny. I’ve never met anyone who “loves” a particular vitamin. I applaud your enthusiasm. Is it tough to learn lines by rote?
[My] job is to memorize the lines. After [I] memorize the lines, [I] have the freedom to play and do anything [I] want.

Speaking of playing, did you have to overcome some sort of professional hurdle to get intimate with Sigourney Weaver?
She was wonderful to work with. Unbelievable. I can’t be more thankful for how open, free, and fun she [is]. Everyone in the show [is]: Kristine and David. They’re all so awesome. It’s an honor to be working with them. Just learning from them. These are veterans.

What kinds of things have you taken away from them thus far?
Little things, from how to work with a line or throw a line out, to keep[ing] composure through the run. It’s a long run. Holding it together…it’s a lot. It’s eight shows a week. It really is draining.

But you love it.
I love it. It’s a wonderful project to be on. But, you get a little [exasperated] after a while. But, every show’s a new show. David and I share a dressing room, so we pep talk before and hang out, bullshit and talk about the show as it’s going on. My favorite thing is switching things up.

Such as?
Sometimes throwing Sigourney on the floor. It’s up to her. There’s a moment in the play where I’m alone with David and I get closer and closer. There was one night I started playing with his beard. The nipple thing just came out of being like, You ready? [Laughs]

That wasn’t written into the script?
No. The motorboat-ing wasn’t in the script either. I popped my shirt open in the audition, too.

Gotta love the cheek. What was the most difficult scene to master?
I would say my audition for Entourage 2. I have to be Spike doing his best audition—it’s really bad—but still be funny. There’s so many layers. That was the most challenging thing, finding that audition. It’s ridiculous. I mean, I’m talking about Entourage 2!

I know, which actually isn’t the most implausible program to exist…
Yeah, I know. [Laughs]

What’s been your favorite aspect of this experience so far?
Giving a bow at the end of a show to give thanks for the audience’s time. That’s my favorite. Just to say thank you. They went on a journey with us. They play with us. The uncertainty is what’s exciting. The audience, through [us], gets to play. You get older and you forget. You forget how to imagine. And, doing a play, the audience is the energy. They really are. They create the world.

Given this, what’s your opinion of the art of theater versus the art of film and TV? You’ve been fortunate enough to do all three.
With film [and television], it’s not a do-or-die kind of moment. You get takes. The stamina in theater—you have to be in character for two-and-a-half hours! In film, you shoot a scene and walk away.

I’ve always wondered, when you leave the stage and go backstage, what do you do?
Sundays, I’m doing the show and I go back and watch football. Then I hear my cue. Then I go back and watch the Jets lose. I play Words With Friends. I think it’s insane.

[Laughs] Wow. Does David watch football with you?
[Laughs] No! I try to get David to watch football. He’ll be like, “Oh shit, the Yankees are losing.” He has no clue. I had fantasy football and I’d tell him about my team and he’d be like, “Yes! Who?” He’s such a nice guy. I really have a friend there. All of them.

I’ve interviewed David at various events and he’s just a lovely individual to talk to.
He’s a soft, sweet guy. And he’s amazing to watch during the show. He’s always there, but he’s a stealth missile the whole play. He’s so specific all the time. It’s kind of wonderful to watch.

Absolutely. You’re all wonderful to watch. It’s a great play. So, is there something you love most about what you do?
I like playing the bad guy. Even in this I’m the “bad guy.”

Indeed! Well, you and Sigourney Weaver. Speaking of being bad, what kind of name is Hootie Pie [the name of Weaver’s unseen assistant in the play]?
When [Christopher Durang] was writing that day, Pootie Tang was on TV!

Hilarity. Ah, the wily ways of writers. That’s some interesting trivia. What’s some fun trivia about your life in NYC?
I live[ed] with Hugo Becker? He was Prince Louis on Gossip Girl. We did Damsels in Distress together. He’s back in Paris now. I miss him, man. He was so cool.

Oh la la! Small entertainment world…
He’s so funny, because that’s not him on Gossip Girl at all. He’s goofy. He’s a goof-French-ball!

[Laughs] Were you ever invited to appear on the show?
Yeah, but I was on the soap opera at the time, so I couldn’t ever get off.

Bummer. The series came to an end this week. Did you tune in at all during its six-season run?
No. Absolutely not. [Laughs]

Photos by T. Charles Erikson

Clips From Greta Gerwig Movies In Descending Order Of Mainstreamness

Oh, Greta Gerwig. The Helen of Troy of Mumblecore; the face that launched a thousand Kickstarter campaigns.

The actress has definitely paid her dues, appearing in more tiny, indie, topless-role-having flicks than most other young actresses. Now, with the upcoming release of Lola Versus, she’s getting the chance to hold a film all on her own.

It’s not without precedent. Gerwig had high billing on the recent Whit Stillman snooze Damsels in Distress and did time in Greenberg, the Ben Stiller vehicle directed by Gerwig’s now-boyfriend Noah Baumbach, and the Ashton Kutcher sex romp No Strings Attached.

On the eve of Lola Versus’ release (and a clip from the movie, watchable but not embeddable here), we look back at Gerwig’s career in film, from the biggest budget to, well, what made her a name in the first place.

Lola Versus.

To Rome With Love.

Damsels In Distress


No Strings Attached.


Nights & Weekends.


Hannah Takes The Stairs.

Whit Stillman Spars With “Ingrates, Traitors” Lena Dunham and Chris Eigeman

Whit Stillman has done a barrage of press for his new comedy Damsels in Distress, and while he was pretty tame when speaking with BlackBook (he only called out the New York theater audiences for their despicable and rude tendencies to cheer and clap during Broadway musicals), it seems he rifled some feathers last week and alienated some old and new friends. In an interview with Gothamist that ran on Thursday, Stillman was pretty blunt when it came to the other current press darling, Lena Dunham, who tapped one of Stillman’s regulars, Chris Eigeman, for a small part in her new HBO comedy, Girls

When asked why Eigeman wasn’t featured in the film, Stillman replied that Eigeman turned down the part seemingly either because it was too small or that he was taking a break from acting. But when Stillman discovered that Eigeman was going to be on Girls, he took offense (especially since Dunham had also turned down a role in Damsels in lieu of her HBO show). 

Well that’s one of the things he told me, that he was feeling really bad about acting, he was really down on acting. He’s been trying to get a film off the ground. But then I see that the other person who no-showed on my production was that Lena Dunham girl. She then cast him in her TV show so the two people who no-showed to our film are collaborating together, acting. What ingrates and traitors.

The stars aligned last week, bringing Stillman, Dunham, and Eigeman together for a screening of Stillman’s brilliant Last Days of Disco at a Dunham-curated week of female-fronted films at BAM. Gothamist reports that things were clearly heated at the Q&A following the film when Dunham openly admitted that there was tension between the trio. (She tweeted later that evening, "Sh%t got pretty real…") Eigeman followed up with Gothamist on Friday, filling them in on what really went down:

"I’m not a big fan of having my loyalty called into question," Eigeman says, "Particularly by Whit Stillman, whom clearly I have been deeply loyal to." According to Eigeman, both he and Dunham confronted Stillman and asked if he was joking when he called them ingrates and traitors, and Stillman said "I’m not joking."

The Playlist was also in attendence on Thursday night, and details the interaction between Dunham and Stillman:

Dunham responded by reciting from memory a bruised letter she’d received from Stillman at the time and had since framed. “How could you decline to be in my film which will be seen worldwide for decades to come in exchange for the utter ephemera of a TV pilot?” The pilot in question was Dunham’s own series in which she is the star as well as writer and director of many of the episodes, which had forced her to pass on Damsels. Stillman’s deadpan demeanor made it difficult to gauge the degree in which he was only joking but he closed the sore subject by saying, “these people are great talents and I hope to work with them someday.”

Rich white people fighting at BAM! (That’s probably not an uncommon occurrence, actually.) It seems like the three have made up, which is a blessing if only because it’d be nice to see Eigeman show up in Stillman’s next feature as another insufferable, pompous preppy. You know, if Stillman manages to get it made sometime in the next decade! 

Photo by Instagram user curleyburly, via Gothamist.

Whit Stillman Ditches the Middle Class and Goes Back to School

To a certain group of twenty-something urbanites like me, Whit Stillman is something of a god. I was too young to really appreciate the writer-director’s most famous film, The Last Days of Disco, Stillman’s 1998 portrait of a group of post-collegiate New Yorkers pairing up in the fading days of the disco scene. But seeing it as a post-collegiate New Yorker, the alienation resonates. I dug into Stillman’s earlier work—1990’s Metropolitan and 1994’s Barcelona—which complete his “doomed bourgeois in love” trilogy, and eagerly awaited the next Stillman masterpiece. It took a while, but after 14 years, Stillman has finally delivered. His newest film, Damsels in Distress, is another comedy of mannerlessness set at a fictional northeastern college, and hits theaters April 6. The new film is full of familiar Stillmanesque characters, still immensely relatable: imperfect, sometimes obnoxious, and all struggling to find where they fit in. Though Stillman was at the forefront of the ’90s independent film boom, he never really fit in. Despite delivering three critically acclaimed films (he received an Oscar nomination for Metropolitan), his movies lacked the gritty edge of Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights. Rather than embrace the supercharged techniques of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, Stillman took a more classic approach to filmmaking: completing character-driven scripts, avoiding salacious subject matter, and examining the morals at play within societal constructs. “I really think films started going bad around 1942,” he tells me. Coming from him, this is not particularly shocking.

I am very nervous to meet the peripatetic Stillman for coffee at Pécan Café, a restaurant on the corner of Franklin and Varick Streets just a few doors down from the Tribeca apartment he is subletting. I had spent the week re-watching his films and feared that the writer-director would be the doppelgänger of one of his over-intellectual Upper East Side misanthropes. When speaking to members of the Damsels cast, I realized I was not alone in my apprehension. “He’s a man of such etiquette,” Adam Brody, who plays the film’s love interest, told me. “I’ve since given it up, but when he used to email me, I would be very self-conscious about my replies, making them very formal in order to match him.” Greta Gerwig admitted that, to prepare for her lead role, she “tried to live in a way Whit would approve of.” But as soon as Stillman and I sit down, my anxiety abates. Dressed in a white dress shirt and a colorful plaid blazer, Stillman resembles a college professor rather than an Academy Award nominee. He’s soft-spoken, inquisitive, and lovably curmudgeonly, and he apologizes for bringing along a plastic shopping bag carrying a crumpled dress shirt that he plans to drop off at the cleaners after our interview. Almost immediately, he reveals how he has started to catch on to the anticipation of his first film in nearly 15 years. “[Damsels] was selected as the surprise film at the London Film Festival,” he tells me, “and it was a really bad idea. Everyone was expecting My Week With Marilyn or the new Twilight film. That was their taste. The good thing was that the press was there and they really liked it, but the response on Twitter was incredibly negative—people seem obsessed with how much they hated it. they really took it personally.” (I should note that in 1998, the average moviegoer did not have an accessible public outlet on which to play movie critic.)

Though it’s surprising to me that anyone could dislike a Whit Stillman film, I recognize his oeuvre is still very much a niche market. Focusing on characters living in the upper-crust of society, Stillman’s films likely alienate the movie-going masses. But despite its sociological exclusivity, his work still points to larger truths about man’s place within society. He also succeeds at creating a surreal universe of his own. Damsels is the first of Stillman’s films to take place in the present day, yet his stilted language and vintage-inspired costumes, not to mention the Gershwin song-and-dance number at the end, create a severe dissonance for modern audiences. Stillman’s own tastes tend toward the classic comedies of Golden Era directors like Preston Sturges. (He even proudly compares Gerwig to Irene Dunn. “Have you seen The Awful Truth?” he asks. “You need to watch it.”) While incorporating some uncomfortably comedic situations, like when one damsel is coerced by her boyfriend to have anal sex based on a fringe Catholic philosophy, the film still inhabits the Whit Stillman universe wherein young women find comfort through dance and where their dashing suitors force them into “tailspins,” the antiquated term Gerwig’s character prefers for a depressive state. 

Audiences tend to identify with the outsider. Huck Finn was a hero, as was the titular Shane. But Stillman’s protagonists, outsiders all, are never completely heroic. Metropolitan’s Tom Townsend, whose lower-class status at first garners the audience’s sympathies, soon reveals himself to be a snobbish heartbreaker who tosses away the affections of the innocent Audrey Roget. In The Last Days of Disco, ’90s indie queen Chloe Sevigny plays Alice Kinnon, a timid and cold editorial assistant who, despite being tragically unlucky in love, also takes out her aggression by kicking a puppy while jogging in Central Park.

The same messiness comes into play in Damsels. At first glance, Lily, a new transfer student at the less-than-competitive Seven Oaks College, seems like the rational counterpart to the fibbing, obsessive-compulsive Violet, the leader of a trio of girls who favor tap dancing and perfumes as suicide-prevention tactics. Things get complicated once Lily and Violet fall for Charlie (Adam Brody), a super-senior who tries to pass himself off as a young professional working in the field of “strategic development.” The young women find this incredibly enticing despite not knowing what such a position entails. Through the course of the film, Lily realizes that Violet’s affinity for sad-sacks and losers, as well as her aspiration to change the course of humanity by starting a new dance craze, bespeaks a shallow nature. But Violet also shows a curious self-awareness. “You probably think we’re frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds,” she tells Lily early in the film. “You’re probably right. I often feel empty-headed. But we’re also trying to make the world a better place.” “My character sort of plays along with the audience’s reaction [against Violet],” Tipton told me. Gerwig originally auditioned for the Lily role, but was more interested in Violet. “She’s totally crazy and totally a liar, yet totally sincere,” Gerwig said. “She is all of those things, and she’s so critical. But she’s also critical of herself and, in a roundabout way, trying to make the world better.”

Despite her flaws, Stillman makes it clear that it’s Violet who is the film’s hero. “The Lily character is actually the nemesis of the film,” he explains. “People need all the help they can get not to dismiss Violet as the mean girl.” It’s not necessarily the film’s fault that most audiences might miss the mark; on the contrary, it might be evidence of Stillman’s powerful writing. He’s able to craft characters who aren’t cut-and-dry, whose moral ambiguities are as important as, if not more important than, the film’s plot. “The secret key to the films,” he continues, “is that the outsider characters are not portrayed very sympathetically. There’s this fiction that I think is very dangerous in almost all popular films that have the sympathetic, identifiable outsider character who’s a good person while the other people are bad. In my films, it’s the outsider character that doesn’t learn anything. A lot of people reject that.”

Stillman’s obsession with outsiders and insiders might stem from his past. The son of a Democratic politician and the grandson of E. Digby Baltzell, whose sociological study of the American protestant class system popularized the term “WASP,” Stillman navigated the demimonde with charm, invention, and the moral ambiguity one finds in his heroes. “The only way I survived debutante parties and awkward social situations was by making stuff up about myself. I couldn’t go as myself to these things,” he explains. “You say who you are and everyone turns their backs. But if you just make something up, generally they are much more interested. When I went to those parties, I found that if you were from Tyler, Texas, or Tyler, Idaho, those very pretty, preppy girls were really interested. But if you were just Joe Preppy from Madison Avenue…”

That goes a long way explaining why the 60-year-old Stillman still examines the social lives of those in their early twenties. “That is the identity formation period, when you’re making important romantic and career decisions,” he explains. “Friends ask me, ‘Why don’t you do stuff about people our age?’ Basically, you’re 16 all your life; once you become 16, nothing changes except that you grow feeble and die. The plight of the 50-year-old? Meh.”

It was a group of young actors and filmmakers who inspired the completion of Damsels. Upon meeting Gerwig, Stillman was fascinated with the ways she and her mumblecore cohort financed their films on miniscule budgets. “I’m not sure about the actual films themselves,” he says, “but the whole style of mumblecore is an exciting thing that revitalized this film.” The micro-budget financing of films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and The Puffy Chair pushed Stillman to make Damsels on the cheap. Despite his critical success with his earlier films, he found it difficult to maneuver the business side of the film industry. “There was a bubble,” he says of the independent film movement of the late ’90s. “It didn’t pop exactly, but the air was going out quickly.” “Indie” quickly became a buzzword and its own commercialized genre. “After Disco, people told me, ‘No, Whit, you’ve got to do things the industry way now,’” he confesses. “The industry way for me was not making a film for ten years. You do this star-casting and equity financing, and you wait around forever. It’s just wheels spinning.”

Gerwig confesses that Stillman’s name was on a list of directors she handed to her agent. When she heard he was casting Damsels, she said, “I was just thrilled that he was making a movie because I wanted to watch it.” Analeigh Tipton, whose role in Damsels is her largest to date, admitted that she wasn’t familiar with Stillman when she was offered the chance to audition. “I was shooting Crazy, Stupid, Love and sitting in the trailer with Julianne Moore, and she asked me what I was working on next,” Tipton told me. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m looking at this Whit…Somebody project?’ Julianne threw her makeup down and said, ‘Whit Stillman?!’ I thought, ‘I guess I can’t say no after that.’”

It must be an ego boost for an A-list actor to eagerly shout your name, but Stillman hardly reacts when I retell Tipton’s story. After all, should Stillman make another movie in the next decade (he is working on a script set in 1960s Jamaica), it’s unlikely he’ll cast boldfaced names in place of younger, inexperienced actors. But he’s got some other ideas, too. “Musicals have been wrecked by Broadway audiences,” he declares. “I was thinking of doing a period musical, but the audience would have to be in period, as well. They wouldn’t be allowed to give standing ovations or squeal and yell at the stage.”

And with that, Stillman grabs his dirty laundry, scoots back his chair, and heads outside.

Whit Stillman Returns With ‘Damsels in Distress,’ First New Film in 14 Years

The trailer for Whit Stillman’s newest movie, Damsels in Distress, looks absolutely charming in an honest way, sure to outpace any other 2012 release that might play with whimsy and sardonicism. Starring mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig, it’s about a group of beautiful girls at an East Coast university who seek to prevent suicide in depressed students with a regimen of high culture and formal dance training. It’s been 14 years since Stillman last plumbed the problems of the "urban haute bourgeoisie" in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, but long waits exist for good reason.

Stillman’s defining characteristic remains his biting wit combined with notions of class and dignity; when depressed girl #1 (played by Aubrey Plaza) says, "You’re just worried that I’ll kill myself and make you look bad," Gerwig responds with, "I’m worried that you’ll kill yourself and make yourself look bad." But there’s not as much meanness in his depictions of the effete lower-upper-middle class as a Noah Baumbach or the relentless twee of a Wes Anderson; he’s more of a formalist referencing classic notions of social structure, with just enough heart in his characters to make you laugh at their intellectual posing and/or roll your eyes at their self-imposed emotional cluelessness. It looks great, is what I mean, and while there’s no release date listed let’s hope they get that out of the way soon enough.