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The Movies Of The Safdie Brothers, Makers Of 'Uncut Gems'

Benny (left) and Josh Safdie stand with Adam Sandler while filming <em>Uncut Gems</em>.
Julieta Cervantes
Benny (left) and Josh Safdie stand with Adam Sandler while filming Uncut Gems.

Poor Howard. As the movie Uncut Gems starts, you can already tell the Diamond District jewel dealer (played by Adam Sandler) has a lot on his plate. And then you find out about the debts, and the gambling, and the marriage.

There's an unrelenting quality to Uncut Gems; it certainly took relentlessness to get it made. The movie has been the life's work for directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie: The two New York City filmmakers have been talking about making Uncut Gems as early as 2009.

Obstacles — like getting access to the tight-knit New York jewel trade for research — got in the way. So the Safdies made other movies. But Uncut Gems was always a "North Star project," and each film got them a little closer — deepened their skill set, got them more clout.

Those movies are more than just stepping stones, though. They each showcase different worlds and corners of New York.

Eugene Hernandez, the deputy director of Film at Lincoln Center, says the brothers were immediately some of the more unique filmmakers he'd seen: "Simply because they're so driven and focused and precise in the worlds they explore — but they're also kind of kooky."

Here's a quick primer on the filmography of the Safdies.

The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)

What started as a commercial for the Kate Spade handbag company eventually became a movie about a kleptomaniac named Eleonore (Eleonore Hendricks). You follow her around New York City and watch her amble about; it's listless and meandering, but charming in its own way. The older Safdie (Josh) has a role as Eleonore's friend who goes with her on a road trip to Boston (in a stolen car, of course). Eleonore is driving. Also, Eleonore doesn't know how to drive. But things work out.

Daddy Longlegs (2010)

The Safdie brothers' parents were separated, and their relationship with their dad was the basis for their movie Daddy Longlegs. It's an empathetic look at a father who wants to be there for his two young sons more than he actually is — the type of dad who buys his kids hot dogs and ice cream after school, but doesn't know who their principal is, or how to talk to him. The movie got the brothers a lot of attention: It hit the festival circuit in 2009, was released in 2010 and at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards it earned the prestigious John Cassavetes Award.

Lenny Cooke (2013)

Lenny Cooke is a gripping non-narrated documentary about a star high-school basketball player who just never makes it at the next level. You see cameos from people who did make it, folks like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and they sting. The Safdies don't tell you why Cooke never made it — because there is no single why, just a bunch of them. The movie got talked about on the website WorldStarHipHop, which was enough cred to convince some jewelers in New York to open up to the brothers.

<em>Heaven Knows What</em> stars Arielle Holmes and is based on her experience as a homeless heroin addict in New York City.
/ Courtesy of Radius-TWC
Courtesy of Radius-TWC
Heaven Knows What stars Arielle Holmes and is based on her experience as a homeless heroin addict in New York City.

Heaven Knows What (2014)

Josh Safdie met Arielle Holmes in the Diamond District while working on Gems. She was an addict and Josh convinced her to write her story into a book — which the brothers then adapted into a movie, with Holmes starring as a version of herself. Most of the roles in the movie were played by first-time actors — something that brings a sense of humanism to the Safdie's movies. Jennifer Venditti, a casting director who has worked with the Safdies for multiple movies, says that the brothers have a knack from bringing something special out of first-time actors: "Whatever your flaw is, whatever the thing that maybe someone else might treat you a certain way, judge you — they're going to lift you up for. They're going to see the beauty in it."

Good Time (2017)

The actor Robert Pattinson saw a still from Heaven Knows What and immediately got in touch with the Safdies. They tried writing him into Uncut Gems, but couldn't quite make it fit. So they fashioned this thriller about a small-time crook named Connie trying to gin up enough money to bail his brother out of prison. It's fast and heartbreaking, but leaves some space for quiet moments. There's a scene where he talks his way into the home of an elderly Haitian woman (Gladys Mathon) — it's a cramped home, but it feels warm and tender. And you know he's going to ruin everything.

Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted this story for the Web.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.

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