Film Features

Why Tom Hooper Is the Defining Director of the 2010s

Love him or hate him, he is THE director of our generation.

"Find you a man who can do both."

A bit of advice that began life as a meme, became general relationship advice, and finally settled in the culture as an identifier of any multi-talented individual. "A man who can do both" is what this generation demands of its lovers and heroes alike. It is the embodying cry of a generation that was forced via technology to adapt to multiple circumstances, to code-switch at will between professional and text speak, to lead a meaningful life in the midst of unavoidably-publicized global crises and catastrophe. We "do both" by necessity. We have built our culture around "doing both." This duality is what made Tom Hooper the perfect director for these times.

While Tom Hooper's name isn't exactly among household names like Steven Spielberg, Greta Gerwig, or Quentin Tarantino, he has been putting out critically and commercially acclaimed work for the last decade, enough to vault him into the same category as the aforementioned by any metric. His 2010 film, The King's Speech, cleaned up at the Oscars. Nominated for an astounding 12 awards, it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Screenplay. He followed that up in 2012 with the best version of Les Miserables ever put to film, an enormously expensive production in which the actors sung live during each take, something that was previously unheard of for a movie musical. He finished his winning streak with The Danish Girl in 2015, a tragically under-seen powerhouse film that showcased two little-known actors who would go on to win Oscars: Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, the latter of whom won for Danish Girl.

French poster for Tom Hooper's 2012 version of Les Miserables. Bruno Chatelin | Flickr live.staticflickr.com

Hooper became known in film circles for the performances he drew from his actors, his sweeping wide shots, his careful shot construction, and his intensely-purposeful plotting. He became quickly associated with other contemporary masters like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher. After three consecutive films that garnered rave critical reviews and made their budgets back at the box office (Les Miserables made almost $500 million worldwide), the world waited with bated breath to see what Tom Hooper's next move would be. If you still hadn't heard of him after Danish Girl came out, you can be forgiven for your ignorance, because Hooper went into hibernation for the next four years. He emerged after all that time for one final masterwork, the film he is now most famous for, and the one he will undoubtedly be remembered for:

Cats!

In an unbelievable turn of events, Tom Hooper, who a decade earlier owned the Oscars, tried his hand again at making musicals, adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber's surrealist broadway smash-hit for the screen. It did not turn out well.

Cats!, released just last December, was an expensive disaster for a multitude of reasons. It was critically panned. It lost $25 million dollars on an estimated $100 million-dollar budget, much of which was invested in special-effects like "Digital Fur Technology" (i.e. digitally covering every actor in fur so they appeared more convincingly like anthropomorphic cats than if they were to wear costumes). Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian Mckellen, British thespians of the highest-degree, shared scenes with Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift. But weird sometimes works. It just didn't work here.

Two of the digitally-furred actors in Cats stare wistfully into the distance. Universal Pictures

At least during its wide release, it didn't. Although still under a year old, Cats is gaining new life in a cult-film scene that includes movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room. There is a growing contingent of the population interested in watching and re-watching the objectively awful CatsCats for the sake of its unintended hilarity and for how well it mixes with drugs or alcohol. This is the great coup of Tom Hooper. This is why he embodies this generation's defining decade better than any other director: he can do both.

Tom Hooper spent the better part of the 2010s proving he was a director of the highest caliber, who could create compelling films with varied budgets, varied casts, and in varied genres. Tom Hooper also spent the final month of the 2010s proving he could screw up almost every part of a film and still find success in it. There is an unprecedented and exciting element in his career. While it's not at all uncommon for acclaimed directors to make career missteps, none of his caliber has ever made such an appalling dud of a film after such a profound string of successes. Regardless of where his movies will eventually settle in cinematographic academia or how they will age, you can't look away from them. What does it say about his work that Cats is probably his best known film? But watch any of his three earlier hits, and one can see they're obvious masterpieces, smart and funny and often heartbreaking, well-acted and well-shot and well-written.

Defining this decade of film is a really heartening endeavor. Careers like Greta Gerwig's (Lady Bird, Little Women) and Ari Aster's (Hereditary, Midsommar) and Damian Chazelle's (Whiplash, La La Land) thundered to life. The masters like Tarantino (Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) made some of their best work. Female directors were criminally under-utilized and under-recognized (only Gerwig was even nominated for Best Director this decade, joining only five women, ever), and perhaps that is the defining story of the decade.

But the defining director still must be decided, and Tom Hooper is the one with the most range, who created a classic Oscar darling, revolutionized movie-musicals, and crafted the next great midnight cult film. The defining director of the decade is the one who can and did do both. Tom Hooper may not be the best director, but his whiplashing career reflects the chaos of the 2010s, and the generation of millennials who claimed it as their own.

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MUSIC

The National Returns with "I Am Easy To Find"

The band's eighth studio album is as heavy as you'd expect a National album to be, but adds a layer of softness to their cinematically-heavy indie rock.

Graham MacIndo

To listen to I Am Easy To Find is to hear The National opening their world a little more.

The National's body of work embraces a cinematic heaviness, seeking shelter in a life filled with doubt and sadness; there's always a sense of reckoning, for better and worse, that pushes the stakes of each album in their discography higher and higher. But I Am Easy To Find feels more present in its focus than a National album has in years. Produced in a collaboration with director Mike Mills that also yielded a short film starring Alicia Vikander, the album directly confronts the ways distance, both physical and emotional, frays the strongest love. "I'm learning to lie in the quiet light / while I watch the sky go from black to gray / learning how not to die," frontman Matt Berninger intones on "Quiet Light," and learning how not to die becomes the album's pulse. It's a melancholy race against time, taking stock of what's important in life while they still can.

I Am Easy To Find marries The National's dark indie rock with an orchestral verve, experimenting with the urgency the sound of strings lends a piece of music. The personal and exhaustive lyricism meshes well with the vivid soundscape, underscoring the album's emphasis on the present. "You Had Your Soul With You" and "Hairpin Turns" envision different faltering relationships, ranging from regret and guilt to impassioned, indignant heartbreak. The ballad-like "Not In Kansas" lives up to its iconic name, tracing what makes a life worth living with soft and excoriating imagery, while leaner tracks like "Where Is Her Head" and "Dust Swirls In Strange Light" play with pure sensation to indicate a thematic path. "Rylan," towards the end of the album, does this most explicitly in a plea to a child to grasp as much as life as they can, a plea that ends up sounding like a warning. The National does their best work giving uncertain answers, promising no happy ending but assuring the listener that a happy ending is still worth wanting.

"I Am Easy To Find" - A Film by Mike Mills / An Album by The National youtu.be


Maybe the most fascinating aspect of the album is the conscious way it takes the shape of a conversation—or a series of conversations—between Berninger's deep baritone voice and the various female collaborators featured on the album. Gail Ann Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tandle and more—accomplished artists and collaborators in their own right—appear as featured vocalists throughout the album, singing with and responding to Berninger's voice laid-bare. The lyrics plumb the depths of uncertainty and heartbreak, set against the sound's magnetic score, but this sense of communication, of genuine emotional exchange, grounds the album's ambition in something real. "Oblivions" and "The Pull of You," especially, use their central duets to try to bridge the chasm between the promises lovers make and what it takes to keep that love alive. This pairing of male and female vocals on a majority of the songs invoke a vast swath of narrative possibility—partners, parents, a generous breadth of perspective—but, most importantly, it allows The National to tell a more fleshed-out story.

The album's title track comes off like a bitter lullaby, a love poem tinged by cynicism: "I'm not going anywhere / Who do I think I'm kidding? / I'm still standing in the same place / Where you left me standing." But the refrain, and the album's title shouldn't be seen as giving up. It's perhaps best understood as a reassurance that whatever imperfect humanity gets in the way, the love that's built between two people is still worth salvaging. I Am Easy To Find is literal in its location and restorative in its commitment; it's a love story where understanding, rather than happily-ever-after, is an acceptable ending.

I Am Easy to Find


Matthew Apadula is a writer and music critic from New York. His work has previously appeared on GIGsoup Music and in Drunk in a Midnight Choir. Find him on Twitter @imdoingmybest.