Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Is Brick the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 2005, Sundance gave out an award called the “Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision” which they seem to have only given out in 2005. Every festival and award show has their own way of doing things, but I think that’s odd. The two films, however, make perfect sense for 2005. If you had to explain that time period to someone, I don’t think you could do better than with Rian Johnson’s Brick and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. Miranda July’s film is undeniably stranger, but it represents the high-water mark of weird films about normal life and how no one’s experience really is that normal. There are dozens of films like it and most of them don’t manage to toe the line between weird and specific nearly as well.

Rian Johnson’s career has had an interesting trajectory since Brick. He’s directed key episodes of Breaking Bad, made a film for indie legends the Mountain Goats, directed a Star Wars movie, and made one of the best movies of the last five years in Knives Out. You might have predicted Miranda July’s career in 2005, but that list for Rian Johnson is pretty bizarre. It’s not that he didn’t seem talented, it just seems like a surprising combination of things for anyone. You also might not have had a lot of hope for film as a whole in 2005, with the Oscars voting that Crash was the best film of the year. I’ve written pretty extensively about this before but I really just cannot say enough about how much I hate Crash. I mention it here to bring you back to the time period, along with Brokeback Mountain, Syriana, Walk the Line, and Hustle & Flow.

Brick is a 1930s crime story told in the 2000s. The style is identical and the language, which is the key to the entire genre, is intact. Every character says things like “keep your specs on” and quips fly constantly. You need to buy into this for Brick to work at all, but that’s not difficult to do. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn’t yet at the height of his powers in 2005, but he carries this as the Bogart figure at the center who is just trying to figure out what happened. There’s a dead body and a brick of heroin and a seedy underworld to wade through, but mostly it’s the story of the steady downfall of a detective. The good ones always are.

Roger Ebert gave it three stars and said it was great but all style and hard to engage with because the characters aren’t believable. He’s absolutely right, but it doesn’t matter as much to me. I saw Brick when it came out and loved it, but the details fell out of my head. I watched it again a few weeks ago for this review and had the same experience, so I watched it a third time. The murder and the drugs just don’t matter and that might be a problem for you. It matters that something holds the whole thing together, but just what it is feels less important. Good noir is all style, anyway, and Brick clears that bar with a ton of room to spare. Just who killed who and what it means for their future is a mystery, which this is, but it’s really not where your eye should focus.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a high school student who gets pulled into what initially seems like a confusing plot but clears up into a pretty simple problem. Someone was murdered and it has a connection to him that threatens to bring him down. Further, it seems like everyone he runs into is connected and their exact involvement isn’t always what it seems. Like the detectives of old, Brendan has just enough information to be dangerous and he refuses to walk away when he’s given the chance. He has to get a little dirty to figure it out, but that’s a risk he knew he’d have to take.

The language is the point. When Brendan starts trying to find information he asks a woman if she is “still picking your teeth with freshman” and she offers that “if you’re ever looking to get back into things, I could use you.” It’s not exactly the slang of the 30s, but it’s highly stylized and often obscures what’s happening. You won’t follow every exchange, but you aren’t intended to. Just like the plot, the point is not that every scene shows you another beat until you see the murder and find the killer. These are clues that are sometimes helpful and sometimes not.

Brendan’s source of info is a guy in glasses who seems to know everything and says things like “ask any dope rat where the junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it off that who scored it off this who bought it off someone and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin.” If this wasn’t all done perfectly it would be disorienting or annoying, but it flows like a language that you don’t fully speak but you can understand. The Pin is a drug dealer and through extended discussion and hinting, Brendan realizes he needs to get into that scene to find out what happened. He does, it goes poorly, and you can guess the rest.

The reason you should watch Brick is that you have to experience it. I don’t care about the murder and I largely don’t care about the ending. I think Ebert is right, as he usually is, and the film sputters out and doesn’t necessarily pay off, but the experience of getting there is really incredible. Richard Roundtree, Shaft himself, plays the vice principal who confronts Brendan when the situation gets hot. They have a conversation that both confronts the ridiculousness of the situation (when Brendan says he should “write him up” if he has a problem and directly asks the VP to not “kick in my homeroom door”) but also the seriousness of it (when the VP says there needs to be a fall guy to give to the police). Brick doesn’t hide from the conceit that this is a murder story with high school kids in it, but it never winks at the camera. It’s in moments like these that you remember how absurd this should be, but how it isn’t.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Both The Lady from Shanghai and Brick are murder stories where the murder is less important than the style of how you hear about it. Brick has the much harder task of setting a noir in a modern world and ultimately is a little easier to follow. They’re both worth your time for the same reason, but I think the older one is the better film. Rian Johnson came back to the “confusing murder story” genre with a more conventional take in Knives Out and that is a much better experience, but you probably already knew that. If you haven’t seen that one, whew, you simply must.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, Persona retains this title again this week, but comparing the two does raise the question of what you want out of a movie. Brick is a better choice for a Tuesday after dinner. If you just want two hours of an experience you aren’t likely to have elsewhere, this is near the top of the list. It’s not going to revolutionize how you think about film, which is hardly a criticism, and I think that’s okay for a modern noir. I watched it three times, though, so make of that what you will.

You can watch Brick on YouTube ($3.99 at the time of this writing) or Amazon Prime ($3.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Trial of the Chicago 7 the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the least strange thing that was up for an Oscar this year. It was nominated for six awards and lost all six, which is not unheard of, but the one surprising detail is that it didn’t win for writing. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed it, has been nominated three times before but only won for The Social Network. Maybe it’s not strange that he didn’t win given that history, but this felt like the Most Writing, at least, and that has to be worth something. Emerald Fennell won for Promising Young Woman, and should have, but it’s surprising to see the Academy agree with that.

Aaron Sorkin complaints are a little predictable in 2021, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate. I loved Sports Night and The West Wing like everyone else and I think The Social Network is great. You can pick a ton of other pieces of work from his career to highlight, but I still think his best work is the very strange, but necessarily strange, Steve Jobs. The script is designed to sell a tightly wound, intense person as the centerpiece that holds things together and to then unravel to show us how that isn’t always true. The performances are strong, but it’s the script that makes it go. There are none of the problems that dog The Theory of Everything or a million other “real” stories from the era. It’s way too tight, but so was Jobs himself. It works because the style fits the subject.

This gets to the complaints. Sorkin can apparently only do this one thing, though he does it to such a degree that he’s made a career out of it. Sorkin wrote The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than a decade before he directed it and it feels like it, at times. Every creative person has their “tells” and the Sorkin dialogue is his. There are unbearable moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the entire movie feels relentless. It does what he wants it to do, which is what makes it an unquestionable success. It’s simply a matter of taste of if that is what you, the viewer, want it to be, that will determine if this is good or not.

I think people are too hard on Sorkin, usually, but this movie really make me question that defense. I liked it, broadly speaking, but I don’t remember the last movie watching experience where I was that aware I was watching a movie. Characters never take a moment to listen to each other. Everyone barrels into every scene already talking and leaves still talking. It feels unnecessary to belabor this point because if you know anything about Sorkin you already expect this. He wrote his version of this story and then directed it. It ended up as you’d expect and everyone liked it enough to nominate it but no one liked it enough to let it win anything.

The Chicago 7, which were 8 before they were 7, were men on trial for inciting a riot after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Sorkin met Steven Spielberg and agreed to write the screenplay after hearing the story, but ultimately he had to direct it after several directors moved on from the project. It all came to fruition when a cast of lots and lots of strange, but great, people joined Sorkin and told the story. Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly great as the straight-laced Tom Hayden who just wants everyone to take this whole trial seriously. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong play the buddy duo of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who want to get high and make jokes. Mark Rylance brings a lot of humor to a simple part as the defense attorney for the group. The list goes on and on and on.

I won’t mention everyone, but Frank Langella as the crooked judge who famously likely lost this case for the state, ultimately, by going over the top in courtroom antics that the audience will find ridiculous but mostly happened, really steals the show. Cohen was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Daniel Kaluuya, who somehow was not the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah, but you could pick a lot of these people and call them the best performance here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the state’s lead dog trying to nail the group. The term “ensemble cast” is obvious, but it’s rare that it’s this big. I just don’t have the room to go into everyone, but even the smaller parts here are carried with serious weight, down to essentially a cameo from Michael Keaton.

All of these truly excellent performances are why you should watch it, but Aaron Sorkin is why you maybe shouldn’t. If you aren’t buying what he’s selling already, you’re going to hate this. It’s even more of what he always does and it really does come over and over like body blows. The one-liners are constant and the writing is so tight it chokes any moment you might reflect on the seriousness of the situation. The story is already grand, but not necessarily one everyone will already know, but Sorkin really does pound it into a tight cube with insistent, witty dialogue. Every individual line is perfect, you could not dispute any of this, but the result of them all chaining together makes everyone feel like someone pretending to be a person.

Which they are, right? It’s only a real complaint when you compare it to everything else you’ll see this year and, really, every other year. Sorkin cannot let go and let the movie be more than a movie. He can’t let people make mistakes and catch those genius accidents. Everything is so perfect that you’d think someone painted the frames. It’s not that it’s beautiful, though it looks fine, it’s that it’s paced like someone cut every syllable together and sweat over the perfect final version. It doesn’t feel as totally starry-eyed as The West Wing, though the ending is a little too twinkly, but it just isn’t as messy as it should be.

It’s still pretty solid and it’s extremely watchable, but it’s just the best possible version of what Sorkin seems to be interested in making. It all feels disposable, though, but that may be the nature of a courtroom drama. There are familiar beats to these stories that lose their weight once the verdict comes down. There is a version of this that complicates the characters further and paints history as complicated and as grainy as it actually was, with more complex arguments than Hayden and Hoffman debating political power as voting through a clear, direct, heavily pointed at modern lens, but that isn’t what Sorkin wants. He got what he wanted by writing and directing, and the result is a very watchable, very tiresome, very perfect version of what he wanted to make. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Persona has a strong case to be the best movie ever made. This is not the best work that anyone involved in it has ever made, except Eddie Redmayne, who I don’t really like in anything else.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, because it failed the last check. I do think it’s fine, if the review didn’t make that clear, I just think Sorkin is capable of more than this. I think we’re capable as an audience of making connections he refuses to let be subtle. I think if you pull out any two minute clip of this movie you will be impressed, but the entirety of the whole thing feels insubstantial. I diagnose the problem as the too-tight writing, but I’d love to hear what other people think. It’s not a bad movie, just a missed opportunity, and only one I call out because what is there is good, but could have been great.

You can watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.