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From Clint to Campion, filmmakers pay tribute to Kenneth Turan

Clint Eastwood rides alone to settle a painful score in "Unforgiven."
(Warner Bros.)

Many might assume the relationship between a critic and filmmakers to be a contentious one, even adversarial. Yet when asked to comment on Times film critic Kenneth Turan, who is stepping away from the position after nearly 30 years, the responses from filmmakers he had reviewed were warm, generous and emotional. In becoming a valued voice guiding readers to new work, Turan also touched the lives of many filmmakers, providing vital encouragement to young directors and seasoned veterans alike.

Below are tributes and recollections from more than a dozen filmmakers — who count among them nearly every top honor the film world has to offer, from the Academy Awards to the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or — on what Turan’s work has meant to them professionally and personally. Whether they refer to him as Ken, Kenny, Kenneth or Mr. Turan, their respect and admiration shines through.

CLINT EASTWOOD
(“Unforgiven,” “American Sniper,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby”)

“I have a lot of respect and admiration for Kenny; he’s one of the greats. He’s kind and friendly, and his enthusiasm for film has always made him keen to elevate the medium through his work. We had a great time together marking the 20th anniversary of ‘Unforgiven’ in Cannes a few years back. I will always consider him a friend.”

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After nearly 30 years as the LA Times’ chief film critic, Kenneth Turan steps back from weekly duties with a list of 14 time-tested classics to get movie fans through the hardest of times.

JAMES MANGOLD
(“Ford v. Ferrari,” “Logan,” “3:10 To Yuma,” “Cop Land”)

“The first time I met Kenny Turan was at Cannes in 1996. He was sitting at the end of a table at the Du Cap with Roger Ebert, Janet Maslin and a few other grand luminaries of film criticism. I was there with Sly Stallone promoting ‘Cop Land’ ...and terrified. Of course, I had known Kenny long before that, through his writings, as a voice of clarity and idealism, a writer obviously inspired by a profound love of all kinds of film. Since then, almost 25 years ago, I have, time and again, been rewarded and challenged by Kenny’s perspective on film, touched by the abiding decency and luminance of his work and his ever-gentle insistence on raising the quality of our dreams. Kenny has given the film community of L.A. and the world so very much, and I hope he is rewarded with a beautiful new act in a life without deadlines.”

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and director Ava DuVernay on the set of "Selma."
Director Ava DuVernay, right, and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. during the production of “Selma.”
(Atsushi Nishijima / Associated Press)

AVA DuVERNAY
(“The 13th,” “Selma,” “Middle of Nowhere”)

“Thank you. For introducing me to so many films as a reader. For being kind when I pitched you films as a publicist. For your thoughtful reviews of my films as a filmmaker. I’ll be following your byline wherever you go. You’re a class act.”

ALEXANDER PAYNE
(“Nebraska,” “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways”)

“Along with its virtuosity, what I appreciate about Kenny’s writing is that he’s so clearly a film enthusiast. He loves cinema and cinema history and longs to see the good in a film. When he pans a movie, it comes from a thoughtful place; you feel his genuine disappointment, and he never condemns. Maybe because I used to hear his boyish voice so often on NPR, but even in his writing one always detects the joy in his work. Critics have to slog through even the worst new films, and if good-hearted Kenny ever got jaded, he never showed it.

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“When my early movies came out, I remember heading out to the newsstand on those Friday mornings to see what the New York and L.A. Times had to say, and I was always so relieved when Kenny liked them. We finally met over a long, champagne-filled interview in Cannes in 2002 when ‘About Schmidt’ was there, and a couple of years later I asked him to be my interlocutor at a public dialogue in Minneapolis. On both occasions, and each time we’ve met up since, I find him one of those fellow film nerds you can’t get enough of, one with whom delightful conversation flows and flows, and you wonder where the time has gone.

“Like everyone else, I’ll miss him very much in The Times, but he’s assuring us he’ll keep writing and getting around. Thank the gods.”

Timothy Spall as the 19th century title character of "Mr. Turner," directed by Mike Leigh.
Timothy Spall as the 19th century title character of “Mr. Turner,” directed by Mike Leigh.
(Simon Mein / Sony Pictures Classics)

MIKE LEIGH
(“Mr. Turner,” “Naked,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Secrets & Lies”)

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“Back in the ‘70s, when we serious British filmmakers could only make TV films, more than one seasoned movie producer told me, ‘Your films will never work in the States — no one’ll understand them, least of all in L.A.’

“Wrong, of course. Apart from umpteen academy nominations and a few wins for half a dozen of my films, there has turned out to be an intelligent L.A. audience with an appreciative appetite for my kind of stuff.

“And nowhere in the world have I found a sharper, more perceptive and sensitive response than that of the critic of the L.A.Times itself, the great Kenny Turan.

“Of course, some might argue that, although he might work in L.A., his soul and sensibilities are that of the native New Yorker. True as that may be on one level, Kenny’s towering strength is his world view. This, together with his boundless knowledge of movies, and his sophisticated understanding of the filmmaking process, makes him almost unique.

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“To be reviewed by Kenny is often a revelation and always a joy, but to be interviewed by this gentle, committed, quietly humorous man never fails to offer therapeutic relief from the medieval torture of the interminable press junket.

“Enjoy your retirement, Kenny! (Glad to note it’s only ‘semi’!) You’re a mensch!”

STEVE JAMES
(“Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself,” “The Interrupters”)

“The first encounter I remember very distinctly was when we went to Sundance in 1994 with ‘Hoop Dreams.’ The film had played a couple of times by the time we got to town, so there was a screening of it at the Egyptian and it was at 10:30 at night and it’s a three-hour film. We jokingly referred to it as the red-eye screening. After the screening, which went remarkably well for how late it was, this guy comes up to me, who I don’t know, and he says, ‘Hi, my name is Ken Turan, and I’m a film critic for the L.A. Times.’ And he goes, ‘I don’t normally do this’ — go up and talk to filmmakers right after a screening — ‘but I just want to say that was really an amazing film and I just really loved it.’ For him to just voluntarily come up like that was pretty great. And then he wrote the [rave] review ... It wasn’t until years later I found out that he was a former sports writer and a sports guy. Though clearly his tastes go way beyond that.

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"Another quality he has as a reviewer, is that he’s demanding in the right ways, in terms of he’s got strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t work in a film. And whether a film is good or not that good. But he never has felt mean-spirited. He’s always struck me as one of those critics that loves movies. That doesn’t prevent him from being critical in all the ways you need a critic to be. But you never get the sense that he’s looking down his nose at the film. Even when he doesn’t like it. And there are a lot of critics that I think a lot of filmmakers feel like when they don’t like something, they’re basically saying, you’re some kind of an idiot.

“The best critics, Roger [Ebert] was one of these, and I think Kenny’s one of these too, the best critics were able to be critical and insightful and tough at times, but they always had an implicit understanding that it’s hard to make a good film. It’s not easy to make a good film and so you don’t need to go out of your way to have sport with a film or with a filmmaker when you don’t like the work.”

Nicole Holofcener, left, James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the set of "Enough Said."
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener, left, James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the set of “Enough Said.”
(Lacey Terrell / Fox Searchlight)

NICOLE HOLOFCENER
(“The Land of Steady Habits,” “Enough Said,” “Friends With Money,” “Please Give”)

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“Ken Turan has always been able to articulate what my movies are about better than I can, and that has been incredibly gratifying. I know he has broken some hearts out there and I feel very, very lucky that he always got what I’d been going for. He supported me from the very beginning, starting with a sandwich at Fromin’s (please tell me I was the only one...) and it has meant so much to me. I thank Kenny for understanding my work and being so kind. I will miss his writing, his heart, his intelligence, and his reviews! Most importantly however, I hope he doesn’t get replaced by someone who will trash me.”

ASIF KAPADIA
(“Senna,” “Amy,” “Diego Maradona”)

“The nature of this beast is that you go away, you work, you lock yourself away, and then it’s always nice when you meet these journalists again after a few years. So it was kind of a 10-year gap between when I first was interviewed by Kenny [for ‘Senna’] and meeting him in Cannes when he did another really nice piece for the L.A. Times on the Diego Maradona film. And he didn’t really know who Maradona was; he’s not a soccer fan. And so for me he was just one of those people who judged the work on what it was. And he responded. And if he didn’t like something, that’s not a problem either. He had proper taste and that’s what critics should be. And he was one of those people who when he was said something was great, you felt better because his words did mean something.

“The whole thing about Kenny and why he meant a lot to me was because I was trying to do something different with my films, where I was trying to make cinematic documentaries. And documentaries when I started were something that you maybe watched on TV or they were smaller or they were very niche and I felt like I want them to be treated like movies. Kenny was really good in that way of treating what I’m trying to do as cinema. Even though it’s made out of archives ... he took it as a thrilling, exciting form of filmmaking. And I think for me that was really important, that kind of respect that he was giving to the work.”

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Veteran Times film critic Kenneth Turan panned “Titanic” but championed “The Piano” and “Black Panther,” and his colleague Justin Chang celebrates a career built on pure movie love.

BILL MORRISON
(“Dawson City: Frozen Time”)

“I’m a filmmaker that works almost entirely by myself. Unlike most filmmakers, I do not have a team of people that develops a film with me. My films live in my mind and on my hard drives for years before anyone other than me sees them. I sometimes liken my process to making a quilt.

“When I premiered ‘Decasia’ at Sundance in 2002, a line formed inside the theater of people trying to leave after 10 minutes. I remember having the same reservations about premiering ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ at Venice in 2016.

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“Who would get it? Would people leave? How would it find another audience?

“But the film’s producer Madeleine Molyneaux knew Kenneth Turan and had urged him to see a screening in Venice. Meeting Kenny and his wife on the Lido for the first time was both a joy and a relief. I remember him telling me he didn’t know who else would get it, but he got it.

“Kenny would write about ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ in no fewer than seven different articles that appeared in the Los Angeles Times: It is hard to overestimate what Kenneth Turan has meant to the life and visibility of ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time.’

“But more than anything I felt like Kenny understood my film like few other people have. This was his greatest gift to me. As an artist, currently nudging another strange and unmarketable film out into a world that has been ripped apart by disease and economic disparity, I once again find myself asking ‘Who will see this film? Who will get it? What am I doing?’ For one film anyway, Kenny answered those questions for me.”

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SEAN BAKER
(“Prince of Broadway”)

“Of course I knew of Kenneth by the time I made ‘Prince,’ and he definitely was considered one of the major, major critics in the U.S. I went to [the] Karlovy Vary [film festival] with the film and he happened to be there; I think he was on the jury for another section. And I remember what happened was it was the closing night party. It felt like a high school dance because the whole time I was on one side of the room, eyeing Kenneth, ‘if I can just get my film into his hands,’ like a high school dance where I’m looking at the girl thinking about how am I going to ask her onto the dance floor. The whole time, I didn’t mingle, I didn’t socialize, I just sat there staring at Kenneth Turan for like two hours trying to figure out when would be the appropriate time for me to jump in and I eventually did.

“And he was the nicest dude. I mean, he was so nice. I thought I was imposing, but I said, ‘You know, I really respect your love of films and your reviews and it would be incredible if you took a look at my movie.’ And he said, ‘I would be more than happy to.’ And so I got his contact information, got him the copy of the film. And lo and behold, he really liked it and ended up putting it in his top 10 of 2010 which really, really helped in so many ways because, it’s this $45,000 film that he’s putting on the same list as ‘The Social Network.’ It really did help because it got a lot of attention. I remember using that list to help us get financing for ‘Starlet.’ If a renowned film critic puts your film up there on that level, suddenly financiers are definitely taking note of that.”

Black-and-white shot of James Baldwin, center, in a crowd in "I Am Not Your Negro."
James Baldwin, center, in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.”
(Dan Budnik / Magnolia Pictures)

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RAOUL PECK
(“I Am Not Your Negro,” “Lamumba,” “The Young Karl Marx”)

“Even before meeting him, it was always a milestone, for an obscure filmmaker like me, to be the subject of Kenny’s quill.

“Over the years we became friends. Kenny is a kind and gentle person, one you could always seek for advice, to which he would usually answer with wisdom and wit.

“He is a rare human being, in this career-driven world molded by ambition and transactions. In Kenny’s world, cinema, art, conviviality, history, humanity and inspired curiosity are always at the center.

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“I wish he continues looking after us all from further, and continues to give his acute critical views, wise and true, on all the follies we will most certainly still be doing.”

HEIDI EWING
(“Jesus Camp,” “12th and Delaware,” “The Boys of Baraka”)

“Forgive me for being sentimental, but I can only describe being positively reviewed by Kenneth Turan as akin to the feeling a child experiences when opening a big shiny package on Christmas morning. Getting Kenny’s approval, always wrapped in thoughtful prose, feels like a real gift, plain and simple.

“I will never forget the first time Mr. Turan reviewed one of my films. It was 2006 and my co-director Rachel Grady and I had spent more than four years working on our first documentary — ‘The Boys of Baraka.’ The film follows a handful of at-risk boys from Baltimore who enroll in an experimental boarding school in rural Kenya. We had been told that Kenny had chosen to review our film for his weekly NPR appearance. We were beyond nervous for our first real critique by ‘the real deal over at the L.A. Times.’ I woke up early that morning and sat near the radio, waiting for the segment. Finally, his raspy baritone came on and my tears began to flow. He eloquently told listeners that the film had grabbed him, outraged him and that the years we had spent making it were years well spent. It was a seminal moment in my career, delivered by one of the most important critics in the business. I was a young director just starting out and his approval was a great motivator to keep making films.

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“Over the past 15 years Kenny reviewed a great deal of my work. I have a sneaking suspicion that my films he chose not to review (and pass to another L.A. Times critic instead) were likely those he didn’t care for — a kind gesture that he extended to many of us in independent film. This was a man who understood that his words could make or break a small film.

“This past January I was on a plane to Park City to debut ‘I Carry You with Me,’ my first narrative feature. I saw that his Sundance must-see list had just come out. I frantically scanned and scrolled hoping that Mr. Turan had liked my film enough to include it in his preview. And when I found my title listed, right there in black and white, I jumped for joy inside — it was like Christmas morning, all over again.”

PETE DOCTER
(“Up,” “Inside Out”)

“Thank you, Kenneth, for all the nice things you’ve written about our films — but mostly thanks for loving cinema and passing along your insights and enthusiasm to moviegoers everywhere.”

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JANE CAMPION
(“The Piano,” “Portrait of a Lady,” “Bright Star”)

“Reading Kenny’s commentaries on films I’m really moved by how gently and amusingly he managed to lay down a dead dog. Kenny is really the Buddha of film critics: kind, firm and enthusiastic in his likes and loves. What a beauty of a man and what an exceptional critic. He’ll be missed!"


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