Thursday, January 09, 2020

The Best Films of the 2010s

What to make of the last decade in film? How does one distill an entire decade of cinema when it's freshly in the grave? While the 2000s ended on an upswing, with the "yes we can" optimism of the Obama era just beginning. The 2010s, on the other hand, began with the rise of the tea party, and a steady rising drum beat of white nationalism and fascism that ended with unchecked climate change, Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of right wing populism around the world.

Filmmakers have been dealing with this in real time, of course. Although I think it may take some time for us to really assess the true essence of the 2010s. Looking back, the films that moved me most were the ones that looked beyond, searching for something greater than ourselves - whether that be God, love, art, or the unknowable, intangible sense of the mystery of existence. Feelings will likely shift over time as we put more space between us and this rocky, unpredictable decade, but from my perspective looking back barely a week into a new decade, these are the films from the past 10 years that had the greatest impact on me.

1. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

Terrence Malick | USA

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is the kind of film that defies all description in words, in much the same way that it transcends cinematic form and language. Malick has never been a formalist, especially in his post-Thin Red Line period that followed his 20-year self-imposed hiatus. YetThe Tree of Life is perhaps the purest reflection of Malick's style, an experimental evocation of the filmmaker's id that seems to be the culmination of his ideas both past and future, a perfect focal-point vortex of his career as an artist. Indeed, The Tree of Life not only seemed to presage the films he would make in the years after its release, it also seems to be the film that each of those look back to for inspiration, extrapolating on its themes and concepts.

Much of it unfolds like shards of memory, resurrected through firing synapses and random impressions - a life, indeed the whole of eternity, flashing before our eyes. The Tree of Life is the kind of film that has the power to make you look at the world with new eyes, almost akin to a 3-hour conversation with God. It is a film of monumental beauty and quiet, intense power; at once cosmic and intimate, massive in scale and deeply personal in scope. That this singular achievement is a masterpiece in both forms, theatrical and extended, is a testament to Malick's genius. The stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who, shockingly, has won three Oscars, but none for the five films he has shot for Malick) seems to throw the language of film form out the window, constantly in flux, never landing on a single solitary image. It captures moments of profound beauty almost by accident, as if in passing. It's somehow fitting, that a film about the fleeting and sometimes messy nature of life refuses to frame it in ways that can be contained in a box. Every image seems to burst forth from the frame, continuing beyond it into infinity, much like the film itself.

The Tree of Life ends with an actual "amen," as a Berlioz requiem closes out the film's Heavenly coda that marks the closest a film has come to a religious experience since Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Indeed, it is like a prayer on film, a hushed, whispered conversation with an unseen deity, marveling at the untold mysteries of the universe with open eyes and a full heart. So few films deserve immediate induction into the cinematic canon, but so few films ever reach such lofty heights. It's a modern masterpiece, a work of almost miraculous power, that demands to be experienced, reflected on, and felt in deep in the soul where few films ever reach.


2. THE TURIN HORSE (2012)

Béla Tarr | Hungary

A horse. A father. A daughter. Cooked potatoes. An almost supernatural gale. All these elements combine to create the quietly shattering final film from Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr. Tarr has directed some of the most fascinating and indelible films of the last 20 years (Satantango, The Werckmeister Harmonies), so his announcement that he would be retiring from filmmaking after making The Turin Horse is a great loss to world cinema. But what a way to go out. Tarr took the legendary tale of Friedrich Nietzsche descending into a 10 year silence before his death after rescuing a horse from an abusive cab driver, and imagines a life for the horse after that fateful day. The resulting film, about a father and a daughter whose ramshackle homestead is beseiged by an apocalyptic windstorm, is one of the most strikingly rendered films about the end of the world ever made. Shot in beautiful black and white, The Turin Horse examines two people trapped by their own existence in a world gone mad. Sparse and austere, Tarr entrances us with minimal dialogue and long, uninterrupted takes (accentuated by Mihaly Vig’s droning score), creating a haunting existential meditation on mortality. One final masterpiece from one of the world’s finest filmmakers.


3. CAROL (2015)

Todd Haynes | USA

It's hard to do justice to the exquisite longing that courses through the veins of Todd Haynes' Carol  Haynes makes films that must be felt on a gut level, the kinds of films that causes chills that start in your very core and radiate out to the tips of your fingers. As he did in Far From Heaven, Haynes takes the staid structures of the 1950s "women's pictures" and explores the unspoken emotional truths coursing beneath the surface. While Haynes isn't recreating the work of Douglas Sirk here, that same DNA runs deep in Carol  as he explores the forbidden Eisenhower-era romance between an upper middle class housewife and a younger shop clerk.

At the film's center are two luminous performances by two consummate actresses. Blanchett and Mara are both absolute perfection, channeling the deep, repressed emotion of two women whose true feelings can't be adequately expressed in the language of the time. They make us feel every moment in a way that feels strangely personal. The same could be said of the entire film. It's a beautiful work, but more than that, it's a deeply powerful one. Haynes so expertly subverts the formulas in which he dabbles, using them to his advantage to tell a story that runs beneath the surfaces he creates. You don't just watch his films, you feel them on a completely different level. He says so much in the longing glances, the subtle gestures, each contained within an impeccably composed frame. Carol is a sublime love story, one that brims with the fiery passion of first love bulging at the seams of its societal prison. It is a major work by a major filmmaker, working at a level of narrative grace and elegance that is almost unmatched in contemporary cinema.


4. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)

Orson Welles | USA

A film seemingly from beyond the grave, Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind began production 40 years ago, and became the legendary filmmaker's final obsession, a project decades in the making that was never completed before his death. Finally assembled by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles' final film can finally be recognized as the masterpiece that it is. Here, a man who started his career making avant-garde silent shorts and radio dramas creates one of the most brazenly modern films of his career, a work of experimental cinema that takes stock of the industry as Welles saw it - from the New Hollywood Cinema of Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, to the European art house cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni (mercilessly lampooned in Hannaford's film-within-a-film). This is cinema as voyeurism, for both the filmmaker and the audience. Is cinema a means to an end or simply an end? A journey or a destination? A penetrative act or a reflective act? Here, Welles dismantles the male gaze, the camera as a phallus, positioning cinema as an act of rape that destroys that which it seeks to exalt. It is a daring, reckless, uncompromising film that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to take its place in the pantheon of great things - the final film of an American master who, 33 years after his death, has shown the world that he is just as vital and brilliant as ever.


5. THE IMMIGRANT (2014)

James Gray | USA

The years since the release of James Gray’s The Immigrant have seen the global rise of fascism, the election of Donald Trump, and an increasingly anti-immigrant sentiment at home and abroad. If the film was timely in 2014, it seems downright clairvoyant now, its use of “past as prologue” presaging the crumbling myth of the American dream in an era of both national disillusionment and re-awakening. Gray’s tale of the exploitation of an immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) at the hands of two men, one a magician, the other a vaudevillian, combines the scope of Visconti with the sensitivity of Fellini, incisively exploring cracks in the American ideal to reveal emptiness beneath. Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner’s pied pipers are neither angel nor devil, but they represent a kind of siren song of opportunity that leads those seeking opportunity to crash upon the rocks. Connected to the core of the immigrant experience once symbolized by Ellis Island, The Immigrant unfolds like a great novel, a quietly observant tale that is both uniquely American and universally relevant, interrogating capitalism’s alluring veneer of freedom that ultimately builds its own success on the backs of society’s most vulnerable.


6. LOURDES (2010)

Jessica Hausner | France

At once a critique and an affirmation of the mysteries of faith, Jessica Hausner's Lourdes centers around a non-religious paraplegic who accompanies a group of the faithful on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, a holy site to Catholics known for its healing waters. When she is suddenly healed while the mother superior is struck with terminal cancer, the pilgrims are confronted with a strong crisis of faith. Was it a miracle or something easily explained by science? If it is a miracle, why the nonbeliever, and not the faithful nun or one of the more faithful pilgrims? Hausner never answers these questions, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions, ending on one of the most haunting notes of uncertainty the cinema has seen in years. Lourdes exists in an ethereal place between faith and doubt, casting a withering eye upon those who peddle faith as a commodity while embracing the tantalizing mysteries of age-old religion, modern science and human nature itself. There is intelligence in its construction, a probing sort of wisdom intent on exploring the deep-seeded human desire to see the divine, to make the intangible somehow tangible or to make apologies and explanations for that which cannot be seen or proven. The brilliance of Lourdes stems from its enigmatic nature, its ability to be spiritual without being religious, to question without being cynical, to embrace both faith and doubt without judgment -- and that is a miracle in itself.


7. THE IRISHMAN (2019)

Martin Scorsese | USA

It took Martin Scorsese nearly 10 years to develop and make his epic mob drama, The Irishman, a sprawling portrait of the rise and eventual decline of mafia hitman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and his friendship with two equally charismatic and powerful figures - mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and infamous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Scorsese shoots the film's murders with a dry sense of matter-of-factness, characters casually stroll into frame, gun down an unsuspecting victim, then calmly walk out of frame again, leaving the lifeless body to bleed out on the sidewalk. There's nothing glamorous about it, but neither is particularly repulsive - it's just business, nothing personal, and that's what makes it all so disturbing. What kind of effect does a life like that have on a man? That's the question that lies at the film's sorrowful heart. Frank Sheeran spent a lifetime painting houses (a mob term for caring out hits; in other words, decorating walls with blood), while Scorsese has spent a great deal of his career chronicling the lives of men like Frank. In that regard, The Irishman feels like the summation of a career, a late-period masterpiece that takes into account a life's work. It is perhaps one of Scorsese's most reflective films, a broad-ranging meditation on life, mortality, and betrayal through the eyes of an old man in twilight, all his friends gone in violent ends, facing the end alone. Are we to feel sorry for him? To pity him? Or perhaps mourn the existence of the violent patriarchal power structures he spent a lifetime upholding? What are we to make of such a man? In Scorsese's masterful hands it becomes an American tragedy writ-large, of great potential cut down by greed and corruption, and a road to hell paved by the best of intentions. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, four lions in winter, all deliver some of the finest work of their respective careers in a film that can only be described as a monument of American cinema.


8. LEVIATHAN (2013)

Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel | France

Every now and then a film comes along that changes our perception of cinema itself; that expands the definition of what a film can be. A film that pushes boundaries, that makes its own rules, that rewrites the cinematic language in such daring and thrilling ways as to completely redefine what it means to be a film.

Such is the case with Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's extraordinary documentary, Leviathan. However, to call it a documentary is almost a misnomer. In fact there's really no label for it that quite fits, because no other film quite compares to it. It's an incredible work of nonfiction filmmaking, to be sure. But it also casts aside traditional form and structure in favor of something entirely its own. You'll find no interviews, talking heads, or even dialogue here, just the story of the New England fishing industry as captured through a series of unforgettable imagery on cameras manned by the filmmakers, by the fishermen, and even attached to tethers and tossed overboard.

Leviathan is a bracing aesthetic achievement, bar none, brilliant in both construction and execution. There is something deeply primal about what Paravel and Castaing-Taylor have achieved here, the kind of film one walks away from realizing they have witnessed something truly special. It is a wholly original sensory experience, a once in a lifetime documentary that transcends the medium and revolutionizes the form. It may be a tough sell for those expecting something more traditional, but what great work of art isn't? Come prepared to surrender to one of the most singular and astonishing films in years, because there has never been anything quite like this before.


9. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2011)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Thailand

There is a singular quality to Weerasethakul's work that cannot be mistaken. He is a man with a vision, a true auteur, each film bearing his indelible stamp, a kind of hushed beauty that seems transfixed in time, at once everywhere and nowhere, seemingly woven into the tapestry of life itself. The could exist at any time in any place, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is no exception, which perhaps more so than any of his previous work, exists squarely in a metaphysical world of spirits, reincarnation, and fantastical creatures that coexist with humanity in a strange kind of harmony.

Weerasethakul incorporates a kind of magical realism in his filmmaking. Metaphysical manifestations of past lives appear like fragments of a dream, making us accept the impossible and perhaps even the ridiculous (monkey ghosts, amorous catfish) as something of great and powerful beauty. Uncle Boonmee's history is at once ancient, contemporary, and timeless. Like his best work, it exists outside of time and place and inside a world of dreamscapes both alien and familiar. Boonmee's head is full of stories of lives past, shards of memories collected into a foggy picture of time long gone, perhaps they are real, perhaps they are not. But upon his death, it all disappears, and his family is left almost detached from their own lives. Or is it the audience who is asked to step back and evaluate, transporting us away into a spiritual world all our own? Uncle Boonmee asks far more questions than it answers.



10. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

Luca Guadagnino | USA

There was a moment in Call Me By Your Name when I realized my heart was full and I was deliriously in love with the rapturous magic of cinema. Luca Guadagnino’s magnificent film explores the mysteries, the ecstasies, and the heartbreak of first love through the eyes of a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet, in one of the year’s most stunning performances) who falls in love with a grad student (Armie Hammer) working for his father, an American professor living in Italy.

Guadagnino has crafted a love story for the ages, a singularly breathtaking work of art that recalls the work of Bergman (Summer Interlude hangs heavy here), Bertolucci, and Visconti. I can't remember the last time I found a film so wholly enrapturing. It has a haunting timelessness to its story of first love, especially in the way it captures those fleeting moments of fiery, moon-eyed passion that come with it. As both an embodiment of the emotions of young love and an idealization of its innocence and beauty, it is a film that feels somehow recognizable and yet larger than life, as if some loves are too good and pure for this world. Call Me By Your Name is a masterpiece, a perfectly crafted romance that lingers and enchants, standing tall as one of the finest cinematic achievements of the decade.

11. THE ACT OF KILLING (2013)

Joshua Oppenheimer | UK

First-time filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer turned his cameras over to former members of Indonesian death squads, now members of the country’s ruling class, and asks them to reenact their deeds in any way they see fit. The result is a shocking, disturbing and ultimately fascinating film about a horrific piece of Indonesia’s history through the eyes of gleefully unrepentant mass murderers paying tribute to themselves. It begins as a sobering look at what motivates and corrupts the human spirit to the point they could commit such atrocities, but when the murderers put themselves in their victims’ shoes during the reenactments, it becomes something even more profound: a look at a group of cold-blooded killers coming to grips with the gravity of their sins. Watching that dawning realization of extreme guilt makes for an extraordinarily moving and cathartic experience., and its power has only grown as the global rise of fascism becomes ever more dangerous.


12. POETRY (2011)

Lee Chang-Dong | South Korea

Legendary Korean actress Yun Jeong-hie gives one of the great performances of the decade, as Mija, an elderly woman who copes with the discovery that her grandson has committed a heinous crime by joining a poetry class. A lyrical, vibrant and deeply moving film, Poetry is a powerhouse, a masterful evocation of a free spirit torn down by the fog of age and tragedy whose search for poetic inspiration leads to an unlikely and heartbreaking source. It is a completely profound cinematic experience from a director working at the top of his game with an actress at the height of her powers. It is kind of a perfect storm of talent, adding up to a consummate work of art.


13. LE QUATTRO VOLTE (2011)

Michelangelo Frammartino | Italy

Like the great silent directors, Frammartino conveys the story through images of often profound beauty. An early shot of dust floating in a ray of light in the church the shepherd visits for medicine foreshadows a later stage in his soul's earthly odyssey, and suggests the fate of others like him from time long past. There is not a wasted shot to be seen here, each is pregnant with possibility and teeming with an inner life; mostly consisting of long, seemingly effortless takes. Despite its wordlessness, or perhaps because of it, Le Quattro Volte enraptures its audience, holding us in its grasp with bated breath, enthralled in each delectable moment and spellbound by its haunting stillness. It is as if Frammartino has stumbled upon a deeply profound truth, something filmmakers so rarely hit upon. His film seems to embody life itself, a feat made even more impressive by its brief running time.

This is powerful and confident filmmaking, a kind of cinematic poem that stares deep into the human soul and emerges with a quietly moving and deeply meaningful experience. I so rarely use the word 'masterpiece' in reviews for fear of unearned hyperbole, but that is exactly what Le Quattro Volte is - a masterpiece. It's a brilliant work of art, a staggeringly masterful and evocative film whose power transcends mere words and enters the realm of the spiritual. No matter one's religious beliefs, there is something of the divine to be found Le Quattro Volte, a whispered hint of the soul's immortality that lingers like a wisp of smoke on a mountain. This is what great cinema is all about.


14. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Steve McQueen | USA

The best narrative film of the 2013, Steve McQueen’s stark, clear-eyed portrayal of American slavery is one of the rare times the Academy Awards got it right. From the stunning performances by its tremendously talented cast (led by a jaw-dropping turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor), to the hauntingly observant direction by McQueen that finds beauty even in the ugliest of events, 12 Years a Slave is a raw, unblinking look at one of the darkest chapters of American history that is destined to go down in history as a modern classic.


15. IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2012)

Don Hertzfeldt | USA

In an age where computer technology has all but taken over the American animation industry and hand-drawn animation is seen as antiquated relic of the past, it's interesting that the most profoundly beautiful animated film of the decade is comprised mostly of hand-drawn stick figures. The crude simplicity of Don Hertzfeldt's It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the root of its singular brilliance. Chronicling the day-to-day existence of a man trying to overcome crippling anxiety, the film is something of a hallucinatory masterpiece, filled to the brim with droll observations about the world around him that create something both readily identifiable and deeply human. Even at its most surreal, it captures something powerfully real about the seemingly mundane worries that make up a moment, delving into its protagonist's broken psyche with a profound insight and sense of empathy. It takes Malick-ian narration and adds a soundtrack of classical music that elevates the deceptively simple animation to a kind of cosmic poetry, as if Hertzfeldt has somehow uncovered the secrets of the universe in his primitive sketches; the sparse, abstract style revealing the abject and mysterious beauty of human existence itself. It's such a beautiful day indeed.


16. PHANTOM THREAD (2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson | USA

Phantom Thread is a film of incredible sensual pleasures, sexy without being sexual, and kinky without being campy. Its deep dive into sadism and masochism as both sexual outlets and psychological states is nothing short of remarkable, treating them not as strange objects of sexual exoticism but as the inherent power negotiations and exchanges of love itself. Anderson is a master, and Phantom Thread is one of his most enrapturing achievements, an enthralling and deeply pleasurable treatise on sexual politics that is both richly thematic and beautifully realized. It’s a feast for both the mind and the senses, and that is one of the rarest cinematic pleasures indeed.


17. MARGARET (2011)

Kenneth Lonergan | USA

Also known as the film that no one saw, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” was shot in 2005, and long shelved amongst legal trouble and studio apathy. Finally given a token release this year by Fox Searchlight, the film was then the subject of an online campaign to get the film screened for critics for awards consideration after it was ignored in Fox’s year-end awards push. It’s a shame that the film has been so criminally under-seen, because it’s a staggering work. Anna Paquin gives the performance of a lifetime as a teenage girl whose involvement in a tragic accident wracks her with grief, threatening to engulf everyone around her. A brilliantly written and deeply felt emotional depth charge of a film.


18. A SEPARATION (2011)

Asghar Farhadi | Iran

In this time of heightened tensions with Iran, a film like A Separation becomes even more essential. A tense and powerful Iranian drama about a family dealing with divorce, who run into even more trouble when the father hires a caretaker for his elderly father, only to be accused of killing her unborn child after he forcibly ejects her from his home upon finding that she has mistreated him. “A Separation” is a universal tale of a family being torn apart that can resonate in any culture. You’ll find no political grandstanding or religious zealotry here, just people trying to live out their lives as best they can under extraordinary circumstances. Gripping and devastating, the film examines ideals of justice in a world colored in shades of gray. Powerful performances across the board and a knockout script deliver an intense and thought provoking film.


19. CERTIFIED COPY (2010)

Abbas Kiarostami | France

A deeply felt and intelligent exploration of individual perceptions, both in art and in human relationships, Certified Copy is one of the decade's most bewitching and delicious mysteries. Lovely, smartly written and thoroughly beguiling, this tale of two strangers who may or may not already be married, lives out an entire relationship in a single afternoon. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, working outside of his home country for the first time, entrances his audience with a keen natural storytelling ability. But there is little actual story here, just an impeccably acted character study that gets under the skin and stays there.


20. HOLY MOTORS (2012)

Leos Carax | France

A glorious ode to all things cinema, Leos Carax’s deliriously unhinged trip down the rabbit hole is one of the year’s most wholly original films. Following a mysterious agent (brilliantly played by Denis Lavant) as he travels from job to job, taking on new personalities at each one, from an old beggar woman, to a sex-crazed hobo, to a caring father, to an assassin, Holy Motors seems to channel the work of David Lynch, Baz Luhrmann, and Vincent Minnelli, while paying homage to Jean Rollin, Georges Franju, and Godzilla. Surrounded by the decadent decay of a crumbling Paris, Holy Motors is as much an elegy for the cinema as it is a love letter. It seems to embody everything cinema is, was, and will be. It’s an invigorating jolt of pure creative energy, and one wild ride.

Honorable Mentions:


  • TOY STORY 3 (Lee Unkrich, USA)
  • THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson, USA)
  • THE WITCH (Robert Eggers, USA)
  • SPRING BREAKERS (Harmony Korine, USA)
  • MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins, USA)
  • THE RIDER (Chloe Zhao, USA)
  • DAWSON CITY, FROZEN TIME (Bill Morrison, USA)
  • THE REVENANT (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, USA)
  • 24 FRAMES (Abbas Kiarostami, France)
  • BLACK MOTHER (Khalik Allah, USA)
  • TAXI (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
  • HUGO (Martin Scorsese, USA)
  • AMOUR (Michel Haneke, Austria)
  • DRIVE (Nicholas Winding Refn, USA)
  • LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, USA)
  • THE FLORIDA PROJECT (Sean Baker, USA)
  • NOCTURAMA (Bertrand Bonello, France)
  • UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
  • THE FAREWELL (Lulu Wang, USA)
  • HEART OF A DOG (Laurie Anderson, USA)
  • THE WIND RISES (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
  • GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
  • HER (Spike Jonze, USA)
  • ZAMA (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)
  • THE MASTER (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
  • BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Richard Linklater, USA)
  • WINTER SLEEP (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  • ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)
  • WHITE MATERIAL (Claire Denis)

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