Charlie Kaufman might be the reason I became a movie critic, so of course I was excited to I think of the end of things, his latest film. (It came across Netflix on September 4.)
Whether he’s writing scripts for someone else or directing them himself, Kaufman has distinctive stylistic tics and thematic obsessions. He often plays with the form of the films themselves, consciously turning our expectations of truth and fantasy on their heads, which has taught me, as an aspiring critic, to see a film as more than its plot. . (He also published his first novel this year, a 720 page bumper titled Antkind, about a failed movie critic. I’m still working on the courage to read it, for obvious reasons.) Since his first breakthrough in the 1990s, his style and themes have become so identified with him that it’s possible to call something “Kaufman- esque ”, the way you might say something is“ Kafka-esque ”.
In fact, Kaufman and Kafka are not entirely different. They share a taste for the surreal and sinuous; they’d rather have you weave your way through their stories, than insist on “solving” their plots like riddles. But while Kafka’s point is often social in nature, Kaufman’s is existential. In the world of Charlie Kaufman, in films like Anomalisa and Eternal Sunshine of the Flawless Spirit and Synecdoche, New York, our own narcissism and our desperation to heal our loneliness conspire to form a labyrinth from which we can never truly escape.
I loved I think of the end of things, which is about as Kaufman-esque a movie you could hope for. It is, unsurprisingly, difficult to describe. Based on Iain Reid’s 2016 novel (but with an undeniable Kaufman twist), it begins with the story of a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who sets out on a road trip with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) on their farm. She thinks about ending their relationship – they have only been dating since about seven weeks – but still haven’t worked out the right way to do it.
His name is Jake, but hers keeps changing, especially once they get to the farm and the weird family meal that awaits them. Is she Lucy? Lucy? Louisa? Is she a painter, a physicist or a poet? Where did she grow up? What does her voice really sound like? Why does he feel like time is slipping back and forth?
The couple’s conversations in the car seem learned and varied, but they often cite other texts, and in fact many of the movie’s quotes, speeches and monologues are taken from other sources. You feel that art is insufficient to heal the breaking of our hearts and the chasms between us. And meanwhile, mysterious scenes featuring a sad school janitor (Guy Boyd) are cut from Jake and Lucy / Lucia / Louisa’s journey, overlapping in the sense that something strange is happening.
Like I said, I loved it. He embodies all the sadness and longing that I expect from a Kaufman movie, and he resembles a filmmaker’s meditation on the limits of his medium as well as the limits of our lives and our loves. It’s nostalgic, and I wanted to see it again immediately when it was done.
More I think of the end of things also works best if you view it as being on a continuum with Kaufman’s work, rather than just a standalone movie. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to see it without first watching at least one other Kaufman movie.
So here are five of my favorite Kaufman movies, all of which you can stream right now, each of which would be a good introduction before you jump into I think of the end of things.
Être John Malkovich (1999)
Kaufman worked as a television writer during the first half of the 1990s on shows like The Dana Carvey show, but in 1999, his first feature film screenplay hit the big screen, directed by Spike Jonze. (Jonze had made numerous music videos, but it was also his first feature film.) He quickly defined what would become some of Kaufman’s signature interests – the narcissism, the distance between us, the inability to truly understand the experience. from someone else, and some really brain-shifting storytelling stuff. The film stars John Cusack as an unhappy puppeteer in an unhappy marriage who, at his unhappy job, accidentally stumbles through a portal in the mind of actor John Malkovich (playing himself). It’s an incredibly bizarre meditation on loneliness and the desire to be someone else, and she landed three Oscar nominations – not bad for a feature debut.
How to watch it: Être John Malkovich is streaming on Netflix. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Kaufman’s third screenplay, Adaptation, is in itself an adaptation of a genre; its source material is Susan Orlean’s 2000 non-fiction book The orchid thief, about the eccentric world of orchid collectors, growers, and Florida smugglers, including a man named John Laroche. But that’s anything but a typical adaptation. Instead, Kaufman has teamed up with Jonze again to tell a story about a guy named Charlie Kaufman (Nic Cage) who is desperately trying to adapt a book called The orchid thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who follows an orchid thief named John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Charlie has a twin brother named Donald (also Cage) who continues to offer him adaptation advice; he also seeks advice from Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox), a famous screenwriting guru. AdaptationThe film’s screenplay is credited to both Charlie and (the fictional) Donald; “They” received one Oscar nomination and the film won three more for Cage, Streep, and Cooper (who won). As the films about scriptwriting and angst fade away, Adaptation is almost certainly the best.
How to watch it: Adaptation is available to rent or purchase digitally on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. It is also streaming on Tubi.
Eternal Sunshine of the Flawless Spirit (2004)
Perhaps Kaufman’s best-known screenplay is Eternal Sunshine of the Flawless Spirit, directed by Michel Gondry, whose whimsical tendencies suit Kaufman’s melancholy well story about memory, fate, love and regret. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play Joel and Clementine, who apparently meet by chance and become a couple on a train to Montauk. But they live in a world where your memories can be erased, and soon we – and them – are left with a question: If you knew that a relationship could end in a disappointment, would it still be worth it? trouble? Kaufman won an Oscar for his screenplay, which tells his story in a non-linear fashion and tackles a subject that science fiction has often explored (memory erasure) in a deeply moving way.
How to watch it: Eternal Sunshine of the Flawless Spirit is streaming on Netflix. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Kaufman finally got behind the camera for Synecdoche, New York, a really weird movie that I never really could explain but that I really like. It is about a director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who – sick, miserable and lonely – suddenly wins a MacArthur genius scholarship and has the means to make his dream project come true. He wants to create the most authentic and meaningful play possible, a show that has something to say about real life. The show gets more and more elaborate and the lines between real life and fiction blur as he continues his quest. The title is a play on the literary device of a “synecdoche”, in which a part of a whole replaces the whole, and it is a strange, ambitious and painfully bittersweet film.
How to watch it: Synecdoche, New York is available to rent or purchase digitally on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play or Vudu.
Anomalisa was the first R-rated film to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, which is a pretty revealing achievement. Kaufman directed and adapted the very dark and comedic film from his own 2005 radio play. It’s the story of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a customer service rep who is alienated from the world around him. He’s on a business trip to Cincinnati, staying in a generic hotel, and everyone he meets seems to have the same face and voice (Tom Noonan’s voice, in fact). He is miserable, lonely and obsessed with himself, until he meets a woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), in whom he suddenly sees an escape. The use of stop-motion animated characters allows the film to do what live-action couldn’t so easily: it shows how Michael sees the world as it transforms around him, evoking just how much he is truly a prisoner of his mind and why he opposes his own connection with someone else.
How to watch it: Anomalisa is available to rent or purchase digitally on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. It is also available to stream on Pluto TV.
I think of the end of things is now streaming on Netflix.
Help keep Vox free for everyone
Millions of people turn to Vox every month to understand what’s going on in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial calculation to what is, quite possibly, the most significant presidential election of our lives. Our mission has never been as vital as it is right now: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes up resources – especially during a pandemic and economic downturn. Even as the economy and the advertising market recover, your support will be a vital part of sustaining our resource-intensive work and helping everyone understand an increasingly chaotic world. Contribute today from just $ 3.