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Vadim Rizov

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Ranked: The Films of David Gordon Green from Worst to Best

Since his 2000 debut “George Washington,” David Gordon Green has received as much consistent grief as anyone who ever walked away from making amorphous independent whatsits to seemingly resign himself to undistinguished studio assignments. In advance of his eighth film “Prince Avalanche”‘s release, we rank DGG’s feature films from worst to best:

8. “Pineapple Express” (2008)

This mediocre action comedy’s ambitions can be gauged from Green’s comments about his instructions to Huey Lewis, who contributed the end credits song: “Our only input was, we told him we wanted it to sound like his 80s work that we loved so much. And we wanted to have the plot in it. And we wanted to have him say the title as many times as he could.” The resulting tune is a pointlessly plausible would-be ’80s artefact; the movie itself is mediocre enough to be a cable slot-filler from the era without actually bothering with the production design flashback aspect. “Pineapple” combines lackluster buddy comedy between Seth Rogen and James Franco and jarring interspersions of comically clumsy but still bruising violence. Visually indifferent and handily making more in its opening weekend than Green’s first films combined, it’s a mid-tier Apatow production with equal time arbitrarily/generously distributed to an ever shrill Rosie Perez and a typically boorish Danny McBride.

In this movie, it’s as if Green’s aping the stylings of his friend/”Eastbound and Down” creator Jody Hill. Here might be the place to note that Green is by all accounts a mensch about helping his film school friends get a leg up, including bringing “Eastbound” to the air and producing his fellow North Carolina School of the Arts alum Craig Zobel’s excellent first feature “Great World of Sound.” Green’s also an established commercials director with a flexible but recognizable style that sometimes seems like a parody of his early work; more on this below.

7. “The Sitter” (2011)

There’s one really good scene, when babysitter Jonah Hill pulls aside one of his young charges and tells him — with pragmatic empathy and total support — that he’s gay and should just accept it. The rest of this is a loose riff on “Adventures In Babysitting” pared down to 82 minutes (with end credits): the abbreviated length is clearly the result of test screening evisceration, but its surviving strands don’t stand alone as anything terribly compelling necessitating future reconstruction. The loser gets empowered while kids smothered by over-parenting thrive, Sam Rockwell mugs heavily and there’s a lot of shrieking in general. This is another ’80s-inspired jaunt that, while perfectly plausible as a two-hour cable-slot-filler, is neither of its time nor ours.

6. “Prince Avalanche” (2013)

It’s worth knowing that according to its very own press kit, “Prince Avalanche” originated from Green’s experience shooting this especially risible 2012 Super Bowl ad. You may recall the one: “it’s halftime, America,” Clint Eastwood growls on behalf of Chrysler, “and our second half’s about to begin.” What Green took from this production was a rediscovery of how much fun it could be to shoot with a skeleton crew, and was interested in seeing if he could transplant the ten-person ethos of his Super Bowl ad to his “return to indie film,” which may be a first. There are some great digressions: interactions with an ornery Texan trucker (the late Chicago-born Lance LeGault, radiating old-man/-school orneriness and salty indomitability) and a woman who lost her home in 2011 fires around Bastrop, TX (Joyce Payne, sifting through the ashes of her real prior residence and saying it’s all “past tense”). Other worthy moments are wordless: Paul Rudd’s Alvin imagining speeding home to his girlfriend, the camera’s fast-moving gaze closely trained on well-worn roads’ swerve patterns and textures.

The bulk of the film’s a deadly stand-off between Alvin (Rudd), who’s dating feckless Lance’s (Emile Hirsch) sister; both men have life lessons to learn, and do so on schedule. Shot outside, it feels as hermetic as “The Iceman Cometh,” with much awkward over-acting on two separate fronts. Limited moments of visual majesty don’t prevent this from being a tone-deaf sprawl of riverside indulgence and inebriated clowning. Like half of the films on this list, “Prince Avalanche” takes a major cue from the ’80s, this time going the extra step to actually unfold in 1988, which mostly seems like an excuse to whip out a clunky boombox and some nostalgia-stoking cassettes.

5. “George Washington” (2000)

I’ve repeatedly tried and just not cottoned to this debut. There was certainly nothing like it in American film in 2000, a film in which Malickian (a justly overdeployed reference point in this case) raptures in fields butted up against a landscape of decaying rust objects, a wilderness populated by teenagers who never swear. A deliberate choice, Green explained in an “Austin Chronicle” interview in 2001: “Getting them to avoid profanity in the rehearsals and in the improv and in the writing of it made them dig a little deeper for something richer to say,” he claimed. “It just makes them be a little bit smarter.” To my mind, Green’s “smarter”/less-profane teens are too cleaned-up for plausibility’s sake, precious possessors of undeniably striking terrain.

4. “Snow Angels” (2004)

There are great performances in here — Sam Rockwell as a manic dad slowly losing it over the custody arrangement, Michael Angerano and Olivia Thirlby as rural high-school kids experiencing barely controllable hormonal spurts of teen love — but they’re forced to co-exist with a dourly tragic narrative in which multiple deaths are a pre-ordained, conclusion. The Nova Scotia shooting location doesn’t prevent a plausible sense of small-town American boredom and mania.

3. “All The Real Girls” (2003)

Pretty much everyone in this film is more famous now than when it came out: lead Paul Schneider did 30 episodes of “Parks and Recreation,” Zooey Deschanel is now “New Girl,” Shea Wigham is on “Boardwalk Empire” and Danny McBride is his HBO peer on “Eastbound & Down.” I haven’t rewatched the film with that retroactive perspective in mind: it survives in memory as a vastly preferable “Garden State” precursor, in which maddeningly twee sentimental declarations alternate with Schneider’s credibly blunt tour-de-force of unjustifiable sexual jealousy. Beautifully shot cuteness trades spots with raw hurt without warning, with a climactic monologue from Schneider in the river talking to his dog with mid-day drunk abandon (a preview of the kind of rough hijinks Green was ready to direct, and soon would).

2. “Your Highness” (2011)

Commendably relentless, “Your Highness” is a comedy/fantasy pastiche that doesn’t depend upon a familiarity level with “Krull” and its ilk to satisfy. James Franco and Danny McBride only have eyes for each other; at the climax, ostensible damsel-of-interest Natalie Portman has to snap at the two fully-infatuated “ladies” to join her in the fight against evil whenever they’re done making eyes at each other. “Your Highness” has non-jokey, surprisingly exciting fight sequences (against cartoonishly phallic monsters) and competent stagecoach chases. While taking the “homosocial” subtext of bro-down comedies to its logical limit, it succeeds as a technically much-improved variant of the ’80s crud it’s inspired by.

1. “Undertow” (2004)

In the absence of a perfect product, this is probably Green’s most interesting movie, beginning with an attention-getting nail going through Jamie Bell’s foot in the middle of his running from the cops, an exciting set-piece that first displayed Green’s occasional flare for action. “Undertow” keeps a straight face while plunging into overheated Southern gothic, with Bell and his brother on the run in a fantasy land. The Savannah, Georgia shooting locations showcase a quasi-imaginary South on a separate track away from interchangeable American suburbs. Local color has always been Green’s strength, and this is probably his most imaginative presentation of it.


Categories: Lists

Tags: All the real girls, David gordon green, List, Pineapple express, Prince Avalanche, Ranked, The Sitter, Undertow, Vadim Rizov, Your highness

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