It's so exciting -- literally exciting; pulse-quickening -- to watch a monumental new talent emerge and begin to edge toward what will eventually be his rightful place among the filmmaking greats. After watching his fourth film, Two Lovers (which opens this weekend and which I'll just comment on obliquely here) I'm ready to call it: James Gray is the next... well, the next something. I'm tempted to say Scorcese, which seems absurdly hyperbolic, but I'm kind of serious. He's that good: that ambitious, that interesting, that attuned to the details of human behavior. Watch this guy. He's gonna be important.
Almost no one saw The Yards (though you should), even I haven't seen his debut feature Little Odessa, and Two Lovers hasn't seen release yet, so I'll talk about We Own the Night: plot-wise a fairly ordinary cops-and-mobsters drama, but one that's pitched at the emotional wavelength of an epic Greek tragedy and as finely observed as any work of arthouse "naturalism" you can think of (Chop Shop? Flight of the Red Balloon?). Scene after scene, the film teeters on the edge of becoming corny and laughable, but it never quite tips over. Part of it is Gray's total conviction, completely committed to an almost absurdly grandiose screenplay. Even more important is how real the movie feels, how almost tactile: 1988 Brooklyn comes alive in front of you; the club scenes seem populated with hundreds of real human beings, not just extras; there's an important scene in a cavernous church that just deposits you in that church in an extraordinary way I can't quite articulate. It's the attention to detail, the rich sound design, the sense of geography and space -- in other words, skilled filmmaking. And then there's that justly renowned car chase in the pouring rain. Wowza.
Two Lovers is an even richer, deeper film -- the same remarkable level of fascinating detail, the same unapologetic earnestness that somehow feels real, with a minimalist plot that's less trite and more involving than Night's. Gray somehow manages to make uttery unremarkable moments -- ordering at a restaurant, say, or Joaquin Phoenix introducing his father to a girl he just met -- totally riveting. (Phoenix, by the way, gives the best performance of his career, though he has since apparently gone crazy.) It's a great movie; Gray's first and, I suspect, not his last.
Gray will now move on to adapt David Grann's The Lost City of Z -- a century-spanning Amazon-set adventure that'll certainly be a departure from the grim urban tragedies he's tackled to date. It's something to look forward to in 2010. I am telling you: watch this space. This guy's something special.
(Seriously though: what's the deal with Joaquin Phoenix?
EDITED TO ADD: People are telling me it's an elaborate, Kaufman-esque hoax. Thoughts?)