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

Lauren Greenfield Opens Up About the Subjects of ‘The Queen of Versailles’

What stuck with me the most after reading Joe Nocera’s New York Times piece about Lauren Greenfield and her documentary The Queen of Versailles—arguably the most important documentary of the year—was her apparent guilt about revealing the subjects for who they really are. In case you haven’t read or heard, Greenfield’s film chronicles the Siegel family—worth a billion dollars and in the midst of building a 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion—from 2009 to 2011, right in the teeth of the recent recession. Even more incredible, David Siegel made his fortunes through his timeshare company Westgate Resorts, which sells the majority of their timeshare properties to people who usually cannot afford them. They were cinematically perfect subjects for an examination of the over-consumptive top one-percent in America during a financial meltdown. Greenfield captures the Siegel family’s obliviousness, stubbornness, and gaudy repugnance with equally shocking, sad, and humorous grace, culminating in the loss of one of Westgate’s most prized business assets and the discounted, unfinished hotel-sized home being put up for sale. The film should be a lesson to all of us about wealth and irresponsibility and how history has, once again, repeated itself. Greenfield should be proud.

Yet she seems protective of the Siegels, that there may be some inner turmoil for leading all of us to their palace gates. Part of this may be strategy, due to the defamation lawsuit the still very wealthy and powerful David Siegel filed against Greenfield, among others, a week before The Queen of Versailles premiered at Sundance—even though his wife attended the screening and sat right beside the director. However, it’s these types of contradictions that may give insight into another source of the talented filmmaker’s guilt: are her subjects living metaphors for American overconsumption or just a specific case of filthy rich people who have lost all sense of reality? Greenfield and I chatted about the film in a large empty ballroom of a luxury hotel about how the film came together around her and why she cared what the Siegels ultimately thought.

So how did you end up working with the Siegels in the first place?
It really happened step-by-step, so it wasn’t like a grand plan. It started very serendipitously. I met Jackie at a party where I was photographing Donatella Versace. She was one of her best customers. While I was supposed to be following Donatella, I ended up photographing Jackie and her friends because they were so fabulous looking and they had these fabulous purses. I actually shot a picture of their purses that ended up in the Time Magazine Pictures of the Year. Through talking to her I learned she was building the biggest house in America. I had been photographing wealth and consumerism for a while by that point, and I actually didn’t even believe her at first.

When was this?
2007, actually. I just stayed in touch. I didn’t even begin filming until early 2009. But at that point they were people who didn’t seem like they would ever be affected by the crash. I went down and saw the house and fell in love with it and the characters. The thing about Jackie and David that was really appealing is that Jackie, in particular, had this down-to-earth American quality even though the lifestyle she was living was stratospheric—and also this openness and accessibility. At the beginning, I thought it would be this inside look at wealth and what it’s like to live the dream that a lot of Americans might want.

So you never had any idea this would become the story it became.
No, I didn’t even know what David’s business was in the beginning. Of course, the timeshare business did become really important because it became a symbol for the housing crisis. David was in the interesting position of being on both sides of that stick. He was selling property to people who couldn’t afford it, yet he was also building a home he couldn’t afford. It wasn’t until 2010, when they put the house on the market, that it became clear what the story really was. The mood in the house was different and it was clear the house was not going to be completed, at least not as planned. I suddenly realized that Jackie and David’s crisis was an allegory about the overreaching of America.

Did they welcome you and your crew in with open arms from the beginning, or was it a slow process?
We went back ten times over the course of three years, and they didn’t exactly welcome us with open arms. We had to earn their trust; we were feeling it out on both sides. I worked at the relationships and hoped we would earn the access to be invited back. I remember being very excited one trip when we left and David did a photoshoot the next day and wished we had been there, since we were “doing a story about [their] lives.” Jackie would also often be sad when we left. We really became a part of it.

It seems like they didn’t like the film at the end of the day—at least, I’m assuming that because of the lawsuit. Did they expect the film to portray them in a positive light?
Jackie actually really likes the film, I was just with her in Silverdocs a few weeks ago.

So she’s still going to festivals with you?
Yeah, she went tom Silverdocs, she went to Sarasota, she wanted to go to L.A. and San Francisco.

Even though David sued you guys?

Is it awkward with her there, sitting beside you?
Um, I remain very close to Jackie, and I think that the other parts are really about business. It started before David even saw the film.

And has he seen it yet?
He has.

And what did he think?
You’d have to ask him. But I think from a business point of view, he’d like a different ending.

Do you think lessons have been learned? When the economy fully turns around, will we go back to the same things? And have the Siegels learned lessons in their own world?
That’s sort of why I ended the film where I did. It starts with the dream and it ends with the failure of that dream. If Westgate goes on to be successful, more power to them, but that’s not the story of the film. The story of the film is this lesson. David even speaks to this in the end, about getting back to reality, how he could have lived with less resorts and none of this would have ever happened. If we can learn from that—I don’t know, I think we’ll see. We’re dealing with human greed, our want to go bigger and bigger, and confusing our wants with our needs.

You mentioned you were close to Jackie. Do you think she has—or will—change her ways?
What I love about her is that her flaws show us our own flaws. When she decides to go to WalMart to shop, it seems like she has learned her lesson because she’s downsizing instead of buying designer. Yet we see in that scene that addiction to consumerism, which to me is really a scene about madness. But I’ve done the same thing myself in Costco when I’ve grabbed things I don’t need because it’s a good price. I talked to Jackie a few weeks ago when she was on a vacation with her kids. I asked her if she was downsizing and she said, “Kind of, but I stopped at Saks in New York and went to the Chanel boutique.”

In Nocera’s recent piece in The New York Times, he implied that you didn’t want to upset them, that you felt bad that they didn’t like the film. If that’s true, though, why do you care what they think?
For the record, not everything in that piece was factually accurate. It’s an interesting situation though. I spent three years with the family and I became close to them personally. I’m always in my work operating on two levels, and I’m always getting close to my subjects and showing their point of view. By seeing their point of view, it helped me to make a more empathetic and compassionate movie. I think that when people see the movie, it’s not black and white and they’ll see these are not bad people. They’re people who made mistakes and their mistakes mirror our mistakes. So I think it is humanizing. In terms of how the subjects think of the finished movie, it’s par for the course. It comes with the territory. I can’t make or edit a movie thinking about what people will like. But I’m happy Jackie likes the film and that she wants to continue to go to festivals, and I understand for David it is about business and that it’s a tough pill to swallow to see the loss the family went through up on the screen.

‘The Queen Of Versailles’ Is Like The Real Housewives Of Orlando, Only Much More Appealing Than That

America’s seemingly endless fascination onscreen depictions of the rich and vulgar has always been long on disgust, short on nuanced analysis. A new documentary, The Queen of Versailles, released July 20, seeks to change that.

The Queen of Versailles stars David and Jackie Siegel, a time-share resort billionaire and his 30-years-younger ex-model wife, as they build a 90,0000-square-foot dream home in Orlando, Florida. No McMansion is this: so monstrous is this house — the largest in the city, in fact — the Siegels refer to it as Versailles, the residence of the French monarchy.  You’ll understand why when you see the 10 kitchens and the bowling alley inside.  Jackie Siegel proudly owns a pair of $17,000 Gucci crocodile boots and their household staff numbers in the double-digits.

You hate them already, don’t you?

Well, give them a chance, at least. No Real Housewives are these. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield took a "fly on the wall" approach to filming the couple, she told The New York Times, which lets their lack of pretension and generosity shine through. Both David and Jackie came from "humble origins," she said, and together they’ve raised eight children. Like other Americans adjusting to the financial crisis, the Siegels are forced to put a halt to construction on Versailles. Greenfield seems to think the film humanizes the couple.

David Siegel did not agree. Prior to The Queen of Versailles‘ debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year, he filed a lawsuit against Greenfield for defamation for the way the Sundance promotional materials depicted the financial health of his company, Westgate Resorts. Throughout filming, Westgate Resorts lays off thousands of workers and is sued for unpaid bills. The filmmakers changed the language, but it seemingly only made him more angry and he broadened the lawsuit, claiming the entire film misrepresents his company. Greenfield’s counsel, famed First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, implied to the Times that Siegel just huffy when the film didn’t turn out to be the blowjob he was expecting.

One wonders whether David Siegel flipped out because he misunderstands the difference between "public relations" and "documentary." Somehow the knowledge that the subject hates the doc only makes me want to see it more.