This Friday, October 15, the highly anticipated Ridley Scott film, The Last Duel, will hit theaters. The film tells the true story of the last sanctioned duel in medieval times and is based on the book by Eric Jager. The screen adaptation was initially co-written by childhood friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon– their first joint script since the Oscar-winner Good Will Hunting. While in pre-production, the megastars realized that the film had three perspectives and that they were not equipped to tell one of them. This historical duel came to be because the wife of an English knight, Marguerite de Carrouges (played by Jodie Comer), accused a French soldier of rape. Affleck and Damon quickly realized that the subject matter needed a rewrite from someone with a different perspective. When they decided to bring in a female writer, one name topped the list— Nicole Holofcener.
In 2019, Holofcener was nominated for an Oscar, for her screenplay of the Melissa McCarthy vehicle, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Still, her best work is the ones she also directed. Over the past three decades, Holofcener has written and directed six feature films, her most popular being Enough Said, starring James Gandolfini and Julia-Louis Dreyfus. But the filmmaker has also made a slew of other independent films with a female focus, almost all of them starring Catherine Keener.
Heavily influenced by the films of Mike Leigh and Albert Brooks, Holofcener has drawn from her own life experiences to create an idiosyncratic and witty body of work. The filmmaker tends to find humanity and wisdom in bad behavior, which is often filtered through a humorous and sardonic lens. As journalist Ariel Levy put it in a New Yorker profile, “her films are beloved by those who identify with heroines whose humor, intellect, and sex appeal are offset by aimlessness, self-sabotage, and alternating strains of wickedness and remorse.”
Let’s take a deeper look at Holofcener’s filmography.
WALKING AND TALKING (1996)
Who’s in it: A very young and very talented Catherine Keener alongside a very young and very talented Kevin Corrigan. Co-starring Anne Heche and Liev Schriber.
What is it about: After her best friend, Laura (Heche), moves out of the apartment, twenty-something Amelia (Keener) experiences a lot of anxiety and insecurity about her life and future. Just when Amelia thinks she’s starting to overcome it, Laura announces her engagement, which causes Amelia’s spiral.
Why watch it: Holofcener spent 6 years fine-tuning a deceptively simple script. Walking and Talking is a compelling and nuanced portrait of Gen-X culture and living. But mostly, it’s a fun and insightful hang-out movie in the vein of Dazed and Confused. We see characters going to video stores, speaking through landlines, smoking pot while folding laundry, waxing poetic about relationships, having post-college anxiety, and experiencing coming-of-age existential dread. Technology might have changed, but the sentiment remains. The film holds up and is worth every minute of its already short runtime.
A fun fact: Harold Ramis has an amusing cameo. Be on the lookout for him when Amelia goes to see a play.
Where to watch: HBO Max
LOVELY & AMAZING (2001)
Who’s in it: The delightful pairing of Emily Mortimer and Catherine Keener as sisters. Heartthrobs Jake Gyllenhaal and Dermot Mulroney are also in the film.
What is it about: Lovely & Amazing tells the story of four resilient and neurotic women and the bittersweet lessons they learn as they try to deal with the curveballs life throws at them.
Why watch it: Lovely & Amazing celebrates the lives of flawed women and the joy of their imperfections, that which makes them, above all else, human. It’s a relatable, sweet, and authentic film that deals with important existential themes without ever losing its sardonic sense of humor.
A fun fact: Emily Mortimer, who appears fully nude in the film, said that the scene helped her overcome chronic feelings of embarrassment. She even went as far as saying, “I was as vulnerable, as brave, as stupid, as naked, as everything. It was an incredible feeling and I felt like, 'Oh, this is proper, and I'd like to keep doing this.’
Where to watch: Criminally, the film is only available to buy in DVD format.
FRIENDS WITH MONEY (2006)
Who’s in it: A slew of powerful and empowering female actresses, from Jennifer Aniston (only two years after Friends ended) and Joan Cusack to Frances McDormand and, of course, Catherine Keener.
What is it about: Olivia (Aniston) is single and cleans houses in Los Angeles to make ends meet, while her friends are in relationships and certainly not shy about reveling in their wealth. As the movie progresses, their lives intertwine in unexpected and revelatory ways.
Why watch it: The film is a wry and incisive look at the economic disparities of a certain subsect of Los Angeles, and features fully realized characters that seem to have rich and complicated lives. As with most Holofcener movies, the dialogue is a treat and offers plenty of insightful tidbits about womanhood. Those who live in Los Angeles will also relish at various notable locations.
A fun fact: Paparazzi were all over the shooting of this film since it was Jennifer Aniston’s first role after a very public breakup with Brad Pitt. In fact, if you look closely at the scene in which Mike and Olivia have a date, you can see members of the paparazzi across the street.
Where to watch: HBO Max
PLEASE GIVE (2010)
Who’s in it: Aside from Holofcener’s habitual collaborator, Catherine Keener, Please Give also stars Amanda Peet, Rebecca Hall, and Oliver Platt.
What is it about: A Manhattan woman (Keener) engages in a series of unnecessary arguments with the granddaughters of the elderly woman who lives in the apartment next to her, which she also owns.
Why watch it: Please Give is a story about those who give and those who take and about those who are takers even though they see themselves as givers. As with most Holofcener films, Please Give is deceptively simple. But don’t let the breeziness of the film trick you into thinking there isn’t more than meets the eye. The film delivers thought-provoking questions about the nature of charitable work and the inner-psychology of those who engage with it. It also takes a hard look at privilege through the gaze of complex female characters.
A fun fact: At one point, Catherine Keener can be seen reading Sarah Vowell’s “Assassination Vacation.” Keener lends her voice to the audiobook version of that same book.
Where to watch: Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, or YouTube
ENOUGH SAID (2013)
Who’s in it: A phenomenal Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in one of his very last screen roles. Yes, Catherine Keener’s also in it, as is the usually extraordinary Toni Collette.
What is it about: Eva (Louis-Dreyfus), a massage therapist and the divorced mother of a teenage girl, falls for her new friend’s ex-husband (Gandolfini).
Why watch it: For one, both Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini deliver terrific and bittersweet performances. They bring out Holofcener’s honest and novelistic writing and give it a whole new dimension. Enough Said also takes a touching look at a phase of life so often overlooked in American cinema.
A fun fact: James Gandolfini had doubts about taking the part of Albert, feeling it wasn’t a natural role for him. His performance received critical acclaim and many consider it his best performance.
Where to watch: Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, or YouTube
THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS (2018)
Who’s in it: Ben Mendelsohn is center-frame, and dutifully supported by Edie Falco and Connie Britton.
What is it about: After leaving his wife and his job, Anders (Mendelsohn) suddenly realizes he made a big mistake. At a low point, he befriends a drug-addict teenager, who further sends him down a spiral of guilt and shame.
Why watch it: Holofcener explores what a non-romanticized midlife crisis actually looks like and the very real consequences that can come from it. It’s a film that sees its main character doing terrible things while maintaining great empathy for him. Holofcener posits that everybody is entitled to feel lost in life and in search of something better, but that no decision is without consequence.
A fun fact: “The Land of Steady Habits” is a moniker for Connecticut that has endured for more than two centuries, and refers to the state’s tradition of assuring political stability through repeatedly electing the same officials to high office.
Where to watch: Netflix
Photo: 20th Century Studios