With the exception of one film, to which this article will return soon enough, the filmography of Tom McCarthy could be one of the most consistent of this century. Since Projector for Still water, almost all of the films he made are worth seeing, and most of them are worth seeing more than once: not because they are necessarily dense or layered, but because it is worth delving into the craft of his writing. His dialogues are rarely flashy. He doesn’t dish out juicy monologues left and right like Aaron Sorkin. He does, however, have a strange ear for the rhythm and cadence of natural dialogue. His characters always sound like real people, having real conversations; they always have interesting things to say, but the words never draw attention to themselves. That kind of discipline is an enviable quality for a screenwriter, especially one who also directs, and it’s part of what makes McCarthy such a great filmmaker. From his only miss to his biggest achievement, here’s every Tom McCarthy film, ranked.
7. The Shoemaker (2014)
Which makes The shoemaker such a puzzling misfire is that he didn’t to have to be garbage. It could have been a perfectly charming piece of magical realism, a Jewish fairy tale set in a New York neighborhood that still has a bit of Old World folklore in the air. Even the presence of Adam Sandler isn’t necessarily fatal, as he’s proven himself to be an excellent dramatic actor in movies like Uncut Gems and The Meyerowitz stories. But Tom McCarthy’s story of a cobbler who can transform himself while wearing other people’s shoes makes the worst possible decision at every turn. Broad and hacky comedy? Syrupy sentimentalism? Pernicious racial stereotypes? A scene where Sandler’s Max Simkin transforms into his estranged father to go on a date with his dying mother? All that, and a third-act twist that’s just the second most infuriating thing about this movie – besides the fact that the great Tom McCarthy was responsible for it.
6. Calm Water (2021)
Luckily, there’s a huge leap in quality between McCarthy’s worst and second-worst films. Still water is by no means a bad movie: it’s the kind of character study that McCarthy does so well, but with a more uneasy and ambiguous tone than usual. Freely inspired by the Amanda Knox case, Still water centers on an oil rig worker in Oklahoma (Matt Damon in drag worker) who goes to France to free his daughter (Abigail Breslin), who he claims was falsely imprisoned for murder while studying abroad. McCarthy flirts with Trump-era undertones by placing Damon’s red father in a foreign land, stubbornly refusing to learn the language; Fortunately, he doesn’t dwell on the subject, instead focusing on the dynamic between Damon’s Bill, Breslin’s Allison, and a translator named Virginie (Camille Cotin). If there’s one major complaint, it’s that Still water doesn’t do justice to the actual case it’s based on: while it’s mostly free of headline sensationalism, the implication that Allison might not be entirely innocent does a completely acquitted Knox a disservice.
5. Win Win (2011)
McCarthy made his career out of low-key character studies, but even by his standards win win is discreet. It’s set in Rhode Island, perhaps New England’s least scenic state. its cast is populated by reliable, non-flashy actors like Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryanand Bobby Cannavale; the sport at its core is not football or baseball, but the unglamorous, jersey-clad world of high school wrestling. win win doesn’t have the whimsy or high stakes of McCarthy’s previous two films, and while it’s rarely boring, it sometimes feels like it’s simmering on low heat. Still, this story of a wrestling lawyer/coach and the troubled grandson of a man he exploits for a paycheck is thoughtful, funny, and deeply human; he understands the imperfections of his characters but never judges them too harshly. An exchange between Mike (Giamatti) and young Kyle (Alex Shaffer) illustrious win winis forgiving and humanistic: you shouldn’t smoke, but if you do, do it outside.
4. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)
The first movie McCarthy directed after the Oscar-winning triumph at No. 1 on this list was… a kids’ movie? A children’s film about an amateur detective on a Segway and his imaginary polar bear friend? It’s not as much of a departure as one might think. McCarthy had dabbled in kid-friendly media before – he helped formulate the story for At the topand co-authored 2016 Christopher Robin and source material for Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made plays to McCarthy’s strengths. An imaginative, abrasive young boy who distrusts authority and fights back against Russian invaders, Timmy is a miniature version of McCarthy’s grumpy oldies. Played by Winslow Fegleyhe behaves in an unusual, sometimes off-putting way, because he is filled with so many emotions and uncertainties that he has to direct them somewhere. Mistakes have been made is funny, quirky and insightful. refreshing, it doesn’t end with the typical coming-of-age farewell to childish things. Instead, Timmy sets off on another adventure, with his trusty polar bear by his side.
3. The Visitor (2007)
The visitor could have been a white savior tale, a magical minority tale, or a mealy-mouthed message movie. Instead, it’s a quiet, grounded, and deeply sad image of New York in the aftermath of 9/11. It achieves this by simply treating each character as a human being and not as a symbol. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, a treasure) is not meant to represent all white people, or even all wealthy white New Yorkers: it is simply Walter Vale, a lonely, brittle widower who finds an immigrant couple living in his unused apartment of Manhattan. A friendship develops between Walter and Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), not because the plot demands it, but because it makes perfect sense that these two people seek friendship with each other. The plot progresses from there, but it never feels like a tidy movie narrative: the characters give up without closure, and something terrible happens without warning. The visitor touches on political themes, but it doesn’t puff out its chest with its own capital-I Importance. It just tells a great story.
2. The Station Agent (2003)
In terms of earth-shattering films whose journey began at the Sundance Film Festival – Clerks, Little Miss Sun, get out – The station agent is rarely mentioned. Although it was only a modest box office hit, its blend of sweet quirkiness and emotional earnestness helped codify what’s been called a “Sundance movie.” Although it didn’t directly inspire movies like garden condition or, indeed, Little Miss Sunthis did directly inspire another film: At the topwhich was modeled on The station agent even before Pixar took on McCarthy.
The narrative is familiar, at least in broad strokes. Fin (Pierre Dinklage), a withdrawn man with dwarfism who has an undying passion for trains, inherits a disused train station in suburban New Jersey and makes it his home. It’s no surprise that a small group of friends help her drop her defenses and let love into her heart, but The station agent never feels sappy or manipulative. Part of that is McCarthy’s dialogue, which is easy, natural, and never draws attention to itself. Another part of that is the cast, who all did a great job: Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale, michelle williamsand particularly Patricia Clarksonwhich is exquisite as an artist struggling with depression.
1. Spotlight (2015)
In some ways, Projector was something of a departure for Tom McCarthy. After a career of small-scale, low-key dramas, here’s a film about nothing less than exposing widespread sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. It was also his first film based on true events, as well as his first film where he wrote the screenplay with someone else (in this case, Joe Singer.) A film about investigative journalists exposing systemic abuse looks like prime Oscar bait, but the stakes were still high for McCarthy: Coming loose The shoemakerthe catastrophic failure of, he needed everything to go well.
This is exactly what happened. Projector Not only did McCarthy win an Oscar, but it was also his biggest box office success. All things considered, it’s his best film by any standard. It’s clear there’s another cook in the kitchen because, for example, there’s more big, showy monologues, but everything McCarthy-style awesomeness is here. There is his dialogue, always so realistic and finely observed. There’s his ability to pull together a fantastic cast, which brings Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdamsand Marc Ruffalo. There’s its understated ability to evoke a sense of place, with the neon-lit offices of the boston globe adding to the tense and airless atmosphere. And as always, there’s his humanistic worldview: instead of bragging about them, he portrays the flawed and exhausted members of Team Spotlight as nothing more and nothing less than humans at all times. Isn’t that enough?
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