Josh and Benny Safdie’s parents got divorced when the two future filmmakers were still very young. Around this time, the Safdie brother’s father, Alberto, had them watch the film Kramer vs. Kramer, for the purposes of explaining the situation to his two young sons. A story like this makes it clear that, at an early age, the Safdies were introduced to the complicated yet synonymous relationship that can sometimes exist between the worlds of film and real-life. And it seems as if, to this day, the Safdies are still fascinated by that relationship, and the process of merging fiction with non-fiction. Their films have been described as visceral, immersive, original, and imaginative, but above all else, they are genuine. This can be attributed to several things including the choice to set their movies in their hometown of New York City, their use of non-traditional first time actors, and their daring and innovative guerrilla filmmaking techniques, to sum it up though, the genuine and authentic nature of their films just wouldn’t be possible without the off-center brains of Josh and Benny Safdie. Those brains have been overwhelmingly productive ever since the brothers were just two kids making films with their father’s video camera. Those brains led to the creation of many acclaimed short films, some of which can be found on The Criterion Channel, that gave the filmmakers notoriety in the beginning stages of their career. Those brains also led to the creation of five of the most engaging films of the last fifteen years or so. Now, after those five films—at the ages of 36 and 34 respectively—Josh and Benny have moved past the rising-star stage of their career, and have officially become two of the most exciting, talented, and creative filmmakers working today.
Attempting to list every single thing that makes the Safdie’s films special would be a difficult and time-consuming task. That being said, I think any conversation revolved around their work has to begin with their characters. From Lenny, the reckless and unformed father at the center of Daddy Longlegs, to Howard Ratner, the brash and impetuous New York City jewler who guides viewers through Uncut Gems, the characters that make up the Safdie’s worlds are always memorable. The brothers like to focus on characters who are often directionless, impulsive, and troubled in some way. Moreover, these characters have a tendency to operate in morally gray areas. The Safdies seem to be interested in putting characters in their films that people aren’t used to seeing on screen. They rebel against the idea that films must only contain “good” heroes and “evil” villains. The Safdies see the world and the people around them as much more complex and interesting than that. They don’t use their films to necessarily condemn or celebrate any of their characters, they leave those decisions up to the audience. They also seem to reject the traditional notion that a character must grow over the course of a film. Instead, they choose to populate their movies with stubborn characters who often fail to learn the proper lesson. The Sadfie’s unconventional and sometimes objectionable characters can lead to certain viewers having trouble enjoying their films. In truth though, it is the detectable empathy that the Safdies have for all their characters, even the more morally egregious ones, that makes their films so special.
The Safdie’s visual style is another trademark that deserves to be highlighted when discussing their filmography. Their chaotic and somewhat unorthodox filming style has become one of the biggest identifiers for their work. Interestingly though, some of this style seems to have been born out of necessity more than anything else. For instance, their film Heaven Knows What was mainly shot with long lenses from a distance in order to, in part, not disturb the actors but also to not alert the authorities, because they were filming on the streets of New York City without a permit. This filming style led to the story being told through a series of shaky, tension-building closeup shots. I don’t think the film would have been as effective if it were to be shot differently, because a different filming style could have taken away from the intimate, distressing tone of the film. As the Safdie’s careers continue to advance and the budgets of their film increase though, there is less of need for this type of guerrilla filmmaking. Regardless of that fact, even their more recent and expensive films still consist of a unique and unmistakable Safdie aesthetic. In their two most recent films specifically, Good Time and Uncut Gems, they utilized a chaotic filming and editing style to heighten the frenzied nature of the movie’s plots. They also included repetitive and electronically-driven scores in both of these films that helped increase the viewer’s anxiety. Editing though, a crucial aspect of any film, is especially important to the Safdie’s movies. All four of their narrative feature films have been co-edited by Benny and the Safdie’s longtime collaborator and friend Ronald Bronstein. Bronstein has been described as the third member of Team Safdie and it’s not hard to see why. Not only does he have those four editing credits I just mentioned, he also played the lead role in their first feature Daddy Longlegs, and has co-written all of their narrative films with Josh. Essentially, Josh and Ronald write, Josh and Benny direct, and Ronald and Benny edit.
As made evident in this post multiple times already, it’s impossible to discuss the films or the lives of the Safdies without mentioning New York City. Their love for the city’s people, streets, neighborhoods, history, and basketball team (as a fellow Knicks fans I’m assuming this one is more of a love/hate thing) comes up in almost every interview they do. Their career is still fairly young with just five features under the belt, but already they have made some of the greatest New York City movies ever created. It’s clear to anyone familiar with the Safdies and their films that growing up in that city had a massive impact on the two brothers. Not only do their films accurately capture the energy of NYC, the Safdies also possess a certain type of New York vibe when speaking in interviews, regardless of whether they are discussing their own films, the history of cinema, or the woes of the aforementioned New York Knicks. I believe the brothers use their films to, in many ways, examine their own relationship to the city and its people. One of the Safdies favorite things to do is to take the real-life everyday characters that exist in NYC and find ways to inject them into their films. They clearly have a real admiration for the, sometimes flawed, people that make up the city they were born and raised in. Over the course of film history, many directors have attempted to properly capture the essence of New York City, and even though they’re still young, few have achieved this as well as or greater than the Safdies.
There are several things to admire about Josh and Benny Safdie. They have obviously created some amazing films but they have also worked incredibly hard, remained creatively in-control, and kept an independent spirit throughout the entirety of their careers. As they seem to now be in the primes of those careers, I look forward to the films they are going to make down the line. In my opinion, they are five for five in terms of great movies and I don’t anticipate a misstep coming anytime soon. But now is not the time to look forward because now, without further ado, it’s time to unnecessarily take a bunch of meaningful works of art from two brilliant filmmakers and pit them against each other for no apparent reason.
(Disclaimer: Since this is a list strictly comprised of the movies the brothers directed together, Josh’s directorial debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed will not be included.)
5. Lenny Cooke (2013)
“Don’t rely on basketball for your happiness.”
Kicking off my list is the Safdie’s 2013 documentary centered on one of their favorite subjects: basketball. More specifically, this film is centered on former high school phenom Lenny Cooke, and his demoralizing fall from grace. In 2001, Cooke was ranked the number one high school basketball player in the country ahead of names like Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and even LeBron James. Despite this, he never went on to play even a single second of NBA basketball. The Safdie’s film shows viewers how the lack of a proper work ethic, questionable decisions, and negative influences led to this happening, as well as what Cooke’s life looks like years after his NBA dreams died out. The most engaging thing about this documentary is Cooke’s story. Even if you are not a sports fan, there are enough human elements to his rise and fall to keep you interested throughout. Also, the Safdies do a great job of illustrating the issues that exist regarding young people receiving a great amount of fame and attention at an early age. Specifically, they shine a light on how some young athletic stars, who grow up in low-income areas, can be manipulated by the people around them. In this film, the audience sees how many of the people surrounding Cooke in his high school days were giving him selfish and bad advice, because they just wanted to benefit from his eventual success. In some ways, Lenny Cooke is a cautionary tale, but even more than that, it is an incredibly fascinating look at the rollercoaster of a life this man has had. The reason this film ranks at the bottom of my list though, is because it does a feel a little unfinished at some parts. Although the ending of this film is very effective, there are certain sections in the middle that felt like they could have been expanded on. When working on a documentary, the structure of the film often comes down to what footage is available. Therefore, it’s possible that the Safdies just didn’t have the footage they needed to expand on certain parts of Cooke’s story. I don’t necessarily fault the Safdies for this, seeing as most of this footage was brought to them, they did not shoot it themselves. Still, I don’t consider this film to be as great as the Safdies other four works, even though I find it to be very enjoyable, especially for NBA fans.
4. Heaven Knows What (2014)
“Would you forgive me if I die?”
The story behind the making of Heaven Knows What is almost as engaging as the film itself. In the years following the Safdie’s debut film Daddy Longlegs, Josh met a young woman named Arielle Holmes. Through getting to know her, he found out that she was part of a community of homeless young people battling addiction. The elder Safdie eventually paid Holmes to write her life story as a memoir, then the two brothers and Bronstein turned it into a film, which stars Holmes as a version of herself. Despite the dark nature of almost all of the Safdie’s works, Heaven Knows What is undoubtably their most grim film to date. Because of Holmes’ connection to the story, and the guerrilla filmmaking tactics that I highlighted earlier, this is one of the most authentic films you’ll ever see. In fact, Benny Safdie once referred to it as a “nonfiction drama” because of the realistic nature of the film. I don’t want to say that Heaven Knows What will ruin all other films revolved around homelessness and drug addiction once you see it, but I do think it will change the way you think about many of those movies and the “Hollywood” sheen that they are sometimes coated in. The Safdies make no efforts to sugarcoat things in Heaven Knows What. They show the audience what this world is really like for the people who are living in it and battling these demons. I certainly don’t think Heaven Knows What is a movie that would appeal to everybody. It can be incredibly raw and difficult-to-watch at times. Although, there is something inherently immersive about this film. It’s hard not to get sucked into the lives of these characters even as they find themselves in situations that you hope you’ll never be in. Despite the immersive quality of the film though, the Safdies do a very good job of not romanticizing this lifestyle. They simply present it for what it is, and use this real life story about love, violence, and addiction to create a wildly captivating film.
3. Daddy Longlegs (2009)
“It’s my screw-up. I’m entitled to screw-up.”
As I’ve mentioned already, Daddy Longlegs—which was originally called Go Get Some Rosemary—was the Safdie brother’s directorial debut. This film is a sort-of autobiographical tale that centers on a devoted yet dysfunctional father attempting to take care of his young sons for two weeks. Due to the autobiographical nature of this story, I would argue that this is the Safdie’s most personal film. They clearly drew on many of their own experiences when writing it alongside Bronstein, who stars in the film. Despite this being the only real acting credit of Bronstein’s career, he is absolutely tremendous in this role. He was so good in fact, that in 2010 he won Breakthrough Actor at the Gotham Independent Film Awards over future stars Jennifer Lawrence and Greta Gerwig. The greatest aspect of Bronstein’s performance is his ability to get the audience to root for this character no matter how many times he screws up. The Safdies make it clear that Bronstein’s character, Lenny, is not inherently a bad guy. He is just really in-over-his-head and unprepared when it comes to juggling the responsibilities of being an adult and taking care of his kids. Daddy Longlegs is much quieter and more reserved than the films the Safdies would go on to make later in their career. Regardless, it is no less engaging than any other film they have made. Even though this film isn’t as highly intense throughout as something like Good Time, Uncut Gems, or Heaven Knows What, there still are some deeply moving moments present in it. This film proved to audiences that the Safdies were not only capable of entertaining them, but of playing with their emotions as well.
2. Good Time (2017)
“I think something very important is happening and it’s deeply connected to my purpose.”
Before I delve deeper into the intricacies of Good Time, I want to make it known that I had a great amount of difficulty deciding which film should be number one on this list. For a while, Good Time did in fact hold the number one spot, but that was changed for reasons I will get to later. For now, let’s just focus on the film Josh Safdie once described as a “heist movie on acid.” At the time of its release, Good Time was the most important movie in the Safdie’s oeuvre. It showed the film world that the brothers could be trusted to make bigger, more expensive films. It also highlighted the fact that they could work with a legitimate movie star, in this case Robert Pattinson. Many people described the Safdie’s 2019 film Uncut Gems as a constant anxiety-attack. However, I think the Safdie’s true anxiety inducing, non-stop thrill ride of a film is Good Time. The action in this film starts immediately and does not let up until the end credits. Pattinson’s frantic portrayal of Connie Nikas—a criminal forced to embark on an elaborate journey to get his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Benny Safdie) out of jail after a botched bank robbery—is one of the best performances of the last decade. The chaotic energy of Connie heightens the chaotic energy of his journey and vice versa. In the end, the audience is left with an incredibly riveting experience that has them on the edge of their seat throughout. Although the aesthetic of Good Time—with it’s electronic score, bright colors, and tense action—is the most notable thing about it, it is the core relationship between Connie and his brother Nick that elevates this film to the next level. At the end of the day, this is a film centered on one brother’s love for the other, even if Pattinson’s Connie demonstrates that love in extremely harmful and negative ways. I recommend this film to anyone unfamiliar with the Safdie’s work or with the talent Pattinson possesses as an actor. It is good enough to be the number one film in most director’s filmographies, but the Safdies managed to outdo themselves with the film that followed Good Time.
1. Uncut Gems (2019)
“This is me. This is how I win.”
As I previously mentioned, Good Time originally held the number one spot on this list. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that Uncut Gems, as of now, is the most fundamental work of the Safdie’s careers. It took ten years and over 160 different versions of the screenplay for this movie to get made. The Safdies poured every once of their being into the making of this film, and it paid off. This was one of my favorite films of last year, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience I had of viewing this film in a theater. In many ways, Uncut Gems is an absolute assault on the senses that accurately shows the viewer what it is like to live in main character Howard Ratner’s world. Ratner was, of course, played spectacularly by Adam Sandler. In Uncut Gems, Sandler used the dramatic acting chops he showed off in films like Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories to create the greatest performance of his career. He was able to effortlessly embody the spirit of Howard in this film. Over the years, while the Safdies were trying to get this film made there were many other actors considered to possibly play Howard. These actors included Harvey Keitel, Jonah Hill, and Sacha Baron Cohen. From the beginning though, Sandler was the Safdie’s first choice. I’m happy that he eventually signed on to the project because I don’t think this movie would have been as effective with anyone else in the lead role. The brothers have talked about how casting a universally beloved figure like Sandler as the lead was actually, in some ways, crucial to the film’s success. They have said a film that is “a love letter to an unlovable character” needs an actor who is adored by audiences in order to work. It’s important to note that the Safdies do have a real admiration for the, sometimes hard-to-love, character of Howard. Their belief in this character was also necessary for the success of this film. For Uncut Gems to work, the filmmakers needed to respect and empathize with their main character. There’s not much more to say really, except for this movie feels like the film the Safdies were born to make. I’m interested to see where they go from here because I’m sure, despite the gratification they felt after finally being able to make this film, it was hard to say goodbye to a project they worked on for ten years. I have zero doubt that Josh and Benny will continue to find ways to entertain, enthrall, and wow us in the future though.