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« The Thing I Ended Up Writing While Trying to Write The Review of "August: Osage County" | Main | Stop Trying To Make Link Happen »

The Secret Year of Spike Jonze

[Editor's Note: Tonight's guest column comes from Andy Hoglund, previously featured in reader spotlight. Here's his choice for "Entertainer of the Year"]

Spike on the set of "Her"

As we sign off on the final moments of 2013, the same names have repeatedly been uttered as defining this year in entertainment. From Miley twerking, to Kanye’s limitless ability to stimulate conversation, to Sandra's space solo, and so on, they've all had their moments. Overlooked thus far is 2013’s quintessential utility man in pop culture—the equivalent of Chone Figgins (versatile infielder/outfielder who finished 17th in American League MVP balloting in 2005). This all-around talent has worn multiple hats this year in film and music, some of them unsung. Spike Jonze may still not quite be a household name in 2013. He should be.

The deep impact Jonze achieves with a project as ambitious and heart-wrenching as Her should be no surprise. After all, his first feature length film, Being John Malkovich, was a touchstone of one of Hollywood’s most audacious years. Rather than pursue a work schedule along the lines of the prolific Steven Soderbergh, Jonze has released only three films since that impressive debut in 1999.

Her marks Jonze’s first single screenwriting credit, after having co-written Where the Wild Things Are and directing the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman on both Malkovich and Adaptation...

In addition to writing and directing, Jonze also co-produced Her, and supplied the voice of "Alien Child". What's most striking is how deeply personal the project feels. This is no doubt a result of Jonze’s intimate approach to filmmaking, and, particularly, the delicate and gentle touch he brings to his writing. It's a skill of his that's never been so pronounced prior to Her.

Jonze’s dialogue in Her is exemplary in a year of strong screenwriting, and worth a read on its own. Given the film’s absurd slim premise (in short: sad man meets iPad, falls in love), it is a testament to his knack for sensitive and thoughtful conversation that the relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johannson) digs deep or sustains any credibility whatsoever.

Praising Jonze for his achievement in Her might sound as obvious as congratulating any of the other flavor of the month filmmakers who released a high profile well-received project during the Oscar season. But Jonze’s contributions to 2013 reach far beyond that critical hit.  In addition to Her, Jonze also earned credits producing and conceiving the story for the gross out comedy Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. Initially, it seems shocking that an innovative, even poetic filmmaker such as Jonze helped create the slapstick Jackass series and continues collaborating with the troupe years after their MTV heyday. But the relationship isn't so far fetched, once you consider that Jonze earned his strips shooting skateboarders and music videos including lauded classics like "Praise You" which exercises the same spirit of guerrilla silliness as the Johnny Knoxville series. Over the years Jackass developed degrees of critical respect by artfully balancing wit and playfulness with crude humor and pranks with surprising satirical levels. And, in case there were any lingering doubts about how hands on he was during Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Jonze appears onscreen during the credits. In keeping with his understated presence throughout 2013, Jonze is unrecognizable; he returns as Gloria, the 90-year-old prostitute, in full prosthetics.

No one hypes a Spike Jonze performance.

Whether it’s Gloria in Jackass, or a cameo in a high profile project like Moneyball, Jonze is always a stealthy, yet effective, player. Working with heavyweights David O. Russell and George Clooney in 1999’s Three Kings, Jonze is one of the highlights of the film as the sweet-natured, dimwitted Conrad. It is the largest part Jonze has ever taken in a film—and one of the few. Since then, he will magically appear in a project here or there in one scene, exude his quirky persona or maximum levels of creep, and then vanish again. Moneyball  certainly benefited from his brief screen time, quickly balancing Brad Pitt’s ultimate cool with an off-kilter, mildly disconcerting portrayal of Robin Wright’s new husband Alan.

In 2013, he does this again in, of all places, The Wolf of Wall Street. It's a totally suggestive part. Our main character, another swaggering superstar (this time DiCaprio instead of Pitt), interacts with Jonze’s Dwayne, who introduces him to the world of penny stocks. The juxtaposition of Jonze, with his unsettling facial features and nasal, indifferent voice, against perfect Hollywood A listers (Clooney, Pitt, now DiCaprio) is brilliant casting.  With the introduction of Dwayne (Jonze) it's immediately clear that something shady is about to go down in The Wolf of Wall Street, He introduces DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort to the penny stocks business model which he practically wills Belfort to seizes and run away with, turning it into a hedonistic enterprise of cocaine, women and corruption.

The limited filmography seems to make his work that much more powerful; like his directorial efforts, Jonze as an actor is careful, particular, elusive and always fascinating.

Spike Jonze's incredible range - acting, writing, directing, music, slapstick - makes him one of the most consequential talents working. One final bid for this year’s entertainment MVP: Jonze oversaw the first ever YouTube Music Awards. Like Jackass, YouTube is an ideal partner for Jonze, given the site’s emphasis on creativity and accessibility.  Shot in early November, he directed a dancing Greta Gerwing in the live video for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife" during the Awards. (Arcade Fire, who also scored Her, have been longtime collaborators with Jonze, previously having directed them in the video for “The Suburbs” off the album of the same name.) Each music video Jonze directs at this point is worth checking out. Their impact on feature length film cannot be overstated.

Are you comfortable with Spike as 2013's Secret MVP or do you have another suggestion? 

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Reader Comments (7)

I would say Jonah Hill since he has 2 films in my top 10

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Rivera

I actually very much enjoyed Spike Jonze in The Wolf of Wall Street. A very very memorable cameo. His line reading is perfect! And the way the scene ends also perfect.

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

I still think Oscar Isaac's ginger cat is hands down the secret MVP of the year.

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKai Lor

Secret MVP is a great discussion worth having as we approach 2014.

Also, unrelated: Spike Jonze may be the closest thing we have in terms of screen presence to a John Cazale. Wouldn't John have played Conrad is Three Kings had been released in 1976?

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Hoglund

I wish Spike did more acting. He was so good in Three Kings and I loved his cameo as Dwayne.

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Kai --ooh, good choice as well. Maybe Spike Jonze could have played a crazy cat person in that movie to bring it full circle.

December 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Any idea what Spike is holding in the photo?

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

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