James Gray is a film director and screenwriter born in New York City on April 14, 1969. When he was a film student, he directed a short feature called “Cowboys and Angels”, attracting attention to his work. A few years later, he directed his first feature film, “Little Odessa”, which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994.
With his great dialogue allied with themes that go deep into the human soul, all of his movies until now take the audience on a journey to a dark path that sometimes might seem to get darker. Most of all, his movies end up leading the characters to places where we might not recognize as good or bad and this plurality is one of the most interesting aspects of his films.
First things first, of course, let us state that Gray really does not have a ‘worst’ film in his career, so let’s say this is a ‘from good to best’ list. From “Little Odessa” to “The Lost City of Z” (his latest feature film), Gray consolidated his name in the industry among the most talented writers and directors from his generation, but still – as acclaimed as he is – he is not as acclaimed as he deserves.
So, here are all six James Gray films ranked and, of course, leave your thoughts on the comment section below.
6. The Yards (2000)
Written by Gray and Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), “The Yards” follow the story of Leo Handler, a young man who gets out of prison and sees himself in the intricate world of contractors in New York.
With a plot that approaches corruption and violence while dealing with family drama, “The Yards” is a good film about a man who does not have anybody to depend on. Gray and Reeves create deep relations between the characters just by setting the environment perfectly. The rich contractor married to Leo’s aunt, a bag man dating Leo’s cousin, and that same cousin with whom he seems to have a connection, are what really backs this film’s structure.
With great performances by Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway, “The Yards” may have its problems with the rhythm and with some aspects of its photography, but is still a film worth seeing by any film fan for its narrative.
5. The Immigrant (2013)
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, this film written by Gray and Richard Menello tells us the story of a Polish immigrant who sails to New York and is separated from her ill sister as soon as she gets there. After that, she meets Bruno, a man who forces her into prostitution.
Set in the 1920s, “The Immigrant” is a bold project with an impeccable production design. The costumes, the photography, and the color palette take us on a somber trip to Ewa Cybulska’s reality as she is abused in many ways over and over again. As this article is free of spoilers, just take a closer look on the confession scene and see how it summarizes everything that this character is going through.
The scenes between Ewa, played by Marion Cotillard, and Bruno, played by Joaquin Phoenix, two of the most talented actors working today, show us outstanding dialogue that has the perfect timing allied to their precise acting.
“The Immigrant” competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 edition of the Cannes Film Festival and with its dark tone, it takes us on a great character journey that makes it a definite must-see film.
4. The Lost City of Z (2016)
After “The Immigrant”, Gray released “The Lost City of Z”, a movie about the true story of Percy Fawcett, an explorer who travels to the Amazon in the beginning of the 20th century, where he discovered evidence of an advanced civilization.
With Charlie Hunnam in the leading role delivering definitely the best performance of his career, “The Lost City of Z” is the story of a man so ahead of his time that discovered something way bigger than him in this journey where he attempted, at first, to save his family name.
Treating a foreign culture – especially one that might still be wrongfully considered inferior to some people – with way more respect than we normally see in the film industry, “The Lost City of Z” is an intriguing film that takes the audience on a great spiritual journey with its characters, and is definitely among the greatest films that arrived in theaters in 2017.
3. Little Odessa (1994)
A great career should probably start well, right? That is surely the case for Gray. “Little Odessa”, as aforementioned, won the Silver Lion at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, and follows the story of a dysfunctional family living in a neighborhood.
Starring Tim Roth in great performance as Joshua Shapira, a professional killer who returns to his community for a job, “Little Odessa” is a crime and punishment story of his relationships with his brother who looks up to him, his abusive father who does say he is no longer part of the family, and his dying mother.
With great directing and valuable moments of silence allied with the use of extreme violence, “Little Odessa” really deserves to be this high on the list of James Gray’s filmography. With a phenomenal last scene with the blankets and all of its silent traces, “Little Odessa”, although being normally the least mentioned film in Gray’s career, is a great 90’s movie that should definitely be seen by any fan of his films.
2. Two Lovers (2008)
Written by Gray and Richard Menello, “Two Lovers” follows Leonard Kraditor, a man who lives with his parents after his fiancée left him. Helping out his parents with their dry cleaning business, Leonard finds himself depressed and ends up attempting suicide by jumping into a river, but is saved by a stranger. Right after that he meets two women – his neighbor Michelle, who is in love with a married man; and Sandra, the daughter of his parents’ business associates.
The story of this love triangle is as gloomy as one could be. All the decisions made by this character, torn apart after he was abandoned by his ex-fiancée, take us on another great character study helmed by Gray. Scene after scene we dive deeper and deeper into this character’s traces, hopes, fears, and desires as we approach inevitable conflicts.
Setting this plot around a man with a troubled soul, mixing love, family and business into the story, “Two Lovers” is one of the greatest films made in the US this century. The directing is exceptional, as well as the writing, and it’s important to highlight the single shot scene on the rooftop. It’s important as well to acknowledge the amazing performances from Joaquin Phoenix (Leonard), Gwyneth Paltrow (Michelle) and Vinessa Shaw (Sandra) that make “Two Lovers” number two on this list.
1. We Own The Night (2007)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall, “We Own the Night” follows the story of brothers Bobby and Joe, portrayed, respectively, by Phoenix and Wahlberg. Following in his father’s steps, Joe is a cop with a great career ahead of him while his brother, on the other hand, manages a club controlled by Russians who are building a heroin trade. As Bobby declines his brother’s request to help gather information, Joe raids his club and, from that moment on, Bobby will need to decide which side is he on.
“We Own the Night” is a crime thriller with all the great elements one should have. Once again, the dialogue and the character arcs are impeccable, and we can see things getting darker and darker in the story while a man needs to decide whether to keep his unruly lifestyle, or change to protect his family.
Phoenix delivers one of the greatest performances of his career – a very meaningful thing to say about a man who delivered one of this century’s best performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” – as we can see how deep he goes into his character’s emotions as he keeps losing more and more.
In the film, there’s a car chase that shows how much control Gray has with the mise en scène. Every sound you hear and every shot you see transmits the level of conflict this character is driven upon. Also, the ending leaves the audience once again on the threshold of good or bad, light or dark, making “We Own the Night” James Gray’s masterpiece.
Author bio: Vítor Guima is a filmmaker, writer and musician from São Paulo, Brazil. Every day he watches a movie, reads a few pages from a book, listens to an album and freaks out with the feeling of not having enough time to see everything. You can follow him on Instagram on @ovitorguima.
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