Continuing from the previous post with numbers 25 – 1, along with five quick honourable mentions.
25. Two Days, One Night (2014)
For four decades, the Dardenne brothers have been a constant in European art-house cinema, thanks to their lauded neo-realist films. A Dardennes’ film tends to follow a similar setup (a protagonist living on society’s margins is pushed by desperate circumstances into crime) and style (handheld cinematography, untrained actors, natural light, long takes). Two Days, One Night stands out among their filmography for a few reasons. Firstly, it stars an honest-to-god movie star in Marion Cotillard (de-glamming to magnificent effect). Secondly, it is set in a more middle-class milieu, which only increases its relevance in a decade when widening social inequality has all but eroded the middle class. Sandra (Cotillard) is a worker in a solar panel factory who is fired by employee vote (rigged by management) when she goes on long term medical leave due to mental health problems. In a desperate bid to save her job, she has to convince the same employees who voted to fire her in a single weekend to change their vote by Monday. With this simple premise, the Dardennes devise a perfect cross-section of economic reality in the 2010s through Sandra’s conversations with each of her ‘jurors’. This is an intensely humanistic film, filled with empathy and compassion for each person involved in the situation, but it is also a film that has astonishing clarity about the callous ‘logic’ of capitalism that created the issue to begin with.
24. A Separation (2011)
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation begins with a clever formal device – a single static long take of both Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) pleading their respective cases to the camera. She wants a divorce because she does not want to bring up her daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) in increasingly fundamentalist Iran. Fair. He wants to stay together as a family and is unable to leave as he has to take care of his elderly father suffering from Alzheimer’s. Also fair. This opening is a microcosm of A Separation as a whole, finely balanced between two opposing sides, with a great deal of understanding and empathy for both. The camera serves as less of an objective arbiter and more of a dispassionate observer, following both Simin and Nader as they navigate the messiness of their dissolving relationship and the many tensions within modern Iranian society. Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of The Game famously states that the awful thing about life is that everybody has their reasons, and A Separation is a worthy descendant to Renoir in the way it portrays the way in which two realistically flawed individuals (and the people around them) can end up on a collision course due to the irreconcilable differences between them. A Separation is a slow-motion tragedy, where the disaster can be foreseen and yet be inevitable, which just increases the film’s extraordinary impact.
23. Lady Bird (2017)
As movies get bigger and more overblown, Lady Bird is an exemplar of the beauty of smallness. Greta Gerwig’s debut feature is a semi-autobiographical look at the senior year of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a rebellious teenager yearning to escape the confines of Sacramento for a ‘city of culture (i.e. New York)’, even as her family’s financial situation prevents her from doing so. As with Frances Ha (which starred Gerwig), Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story that finely threads the needle between empathy and criticism for its protagonist, one that takes her desire to break free seriously while chiding her for her self-absorption and naivete. In the middle of it all is one of the most authentic performances of the decade, with Ronan delivering a pitch-perfect portrayal that is both endearing and irritating in equal measure. Lady Bird feels like a real person, and this is a testament to the talents of Gerwig and Ronan. Gerwig’s direction is virtuosic in how unshowy it is, distilling Lady Bird down to numerous precisely edited vignettes that elegantly portray her complicated relationships with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and the boys that flit in and out of her life. Though its scope is modest, Lady Bird, with its warmth and insight, feels massive in a way that a million CGI-fests could never achieve.
22. The Great Beauty (2013)
If judged purely on surface pleasures, The Great Beauty would still be a worthy watch. The fact that there is so much more beneath Paolo Sorrentino’s Roman romp is what puts it on this list. Telling the story of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), an aging writer living off the memory and goodwill of a book he wrote decades ago. Sorrentino’s roving camera captures Jep as he looks for meaning and beauty in the unending party that is his life, only to find disappointment and banality. The Great Beauty is a film of the emptiness of excess, piling on party scene after party scene until Jep (and the audience) almost buckle with exhaustion. At one point, one of Jep’s friends asks what happened to the youthful leftist idealism they used to have, and Sorrentino’s camera captures the absurdity of the contrast between this question and the opulence of their surroundings. Jep, who squandered his talent and insight on decades of superficial decadence, is very much Sorrentino’s stand-in for Italian society, and there is a mordant cynicism throughout The Great Beauty about where protagonist, country, and world is headed. Yet, amidst the barrage of light and sound, Sorrentino shows us how tempting this particular road to hell is with each new seductive vision of the high life. We may be heading to oblivion, but at least the afterparty will be fantastic.
21. Anomalisa (2015)
Out of every filmmaker on this list (aside from maybe the guys in 18, 8 and 7), Charlie Kaufman is the most unique. For Kaufman, it is less his visual style and more of his writing that makes him a true original, thanks to screenplays for mindfuck masterpieces like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. Anomalisa is Kaufman’s second film (after the intimidating opus that is Synecdoche, New York), and in true Kaufman style, uses formal and narrative trickery to tell a powerful story about solipsism and the barriers to human connection. Oh, and it’s also entirely in stop-motion animation. Anomalisa is about Michael (David Thewlis), an alienated corporate drone who starts to see everyone around him as the same person (Tom Noonan) while on a business trip. That is until he hears the voice of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the one person who looks and sounds different. She is the anomaly – or, in Michael’s words, the anomalisa. What appears to be the setup to a quirkier Lost In Translation is soon replaced with something deeper and darker, as Kaufman mercilessly shreds the layers of deception around his protagonist to reveal that the problem is not with the world, but him. Anomalisa is a bitter tonic of tough love, reminding us that dissatisfaction is not cured with simple solutions, and that without empathy and the ability to accept people for who they are, there is no ending save the void of loneliness.
20. Inception (2010)
About a month after Inception arrived, I stood in a bathroom stall of a club with three other dudes, one of whom was puking his guts out. We were arguing about Inception (except the vomitter, who was in no state to talk). Is the ending real? Did Leo get out of the dream? A decade later, it is clear to me that Inception is less about what ‘really happened’ and more about the masterful filmmaking that got everyone talking about it, even in the strangest of places. There are few directors left (hat-tip to Jordan Peele) making great original pop-art for the masses, and Christopher Nolan ascended to this peerless status with the one-two punch of The Dark Knight and Inception. And while The Dark Knight is probably the better movie, Inception is by far the greater achievement. A heist story that is 75% exposition and manages at once to be both laughably convoluted and laughably simplistic – this is your tentpole blockbuster? And yet, through the rat-a-tat dialogue, Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score, and the film’s ineffable, assured sense of cool, Inception became the greatest blockbuster of the 2010s. It is a movie about literally untangling the messiness of life into something comprehensible, which is probably why it resonated so much in this crazy decade. More than anything, Inception is overwhelming proof that if you give a talented filmmaker a big enough sandbox to play with, he will build you a sandcastle that can cover the sky.
19. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
“I don’t see a lot of money here.” There has not been a single more devastating line of dialogue in this decade of film, except perhaps the response to it – a single, flat ‘ok’. With this exchange, the Coen Brothers, masters of the shaggy-dog story, tie up perhaps their shaggiest one yet. Joel and Ethan Coen have always been fascinated with suffering, and boy do they make Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) suffer. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, what with being an intolerable asshole, but there comes a point where the indignities heaped upon him seem to mount up to something more – until they don’t. The Coens’ tale of a ne’er-do-well folk singer stumbling through Greenwich Village in the early 60s also happens to be one of the greatest movies about art ever made. Is Llewyn’s insistence on maintaining the purity of his music the principled stance of an artist or the pretensions of a narcissist? As with most things Coen, the answer is neither and both. Anchored on a star-making performance from Oscar Isaac, this is a clear-eyed look at the seeming futility of trying to create meaningful art in a world obsessed only with ‘seeing the money’. Ironic that this comes from two filmmakers who have forged their own unique path time and time again, but if even the guys who made Barton Fink think that it is hopeless, then what hope do the rest of us schlubs have?
18. Holy Motors (2012)
What is cinema? Celebrated French auteur Leos Carax’s first film since 1999 never does anything so crass as to define the meaning of the term, but instead opts to imbue the spirit of pure cinema in every molecule of its being. Over the span of slightly under 2 hours, Carax and regular collaborator Denis Lavant (in a performance for the ages) take the viewer on a ride through a mysterious series of ‘jobs’ in a white limousine, from singing a lovelorn duet with an old flame to performing motion capture CGI alien sex to a truly bizarre interlude involving a redheaded hunchback kidnapping Eva Mendes and eating her hair. The metaphor is not a subtle one. Cinema, Carax tells us, is all of these things, boundless in its capacity to create joy, grief, agony and all the emotions in between. This is a film that attempts no less than to capture the entire spirit of an art form, and shockingly succeeds in doing so. As Carax joyfully bounds from genre to genre and Lavant transforms from character to character, the thesis statement of the film becomes clear. This is cinema, a beautiful lie that reveals greater truth, the titular ‘holy motor’ that transports the audience on a journey of the impossible. And, if on the way, there is time to break for an accordion interlude, then all the better.
17. Whiplash (2014)
Where does greatness come from? Does suffering really breed art? What is the line between discipline and abuse? Whiplash, one of cinema’s greatest films about teaching, remains steadfastly ambivalent about these questions, because like any good teacher, it wants you to arrive at the conclusions yourself. Whiplash tells the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), an aspiring jazz musician who gets the chance of a lifetime when he is chosen for the elite studio band led by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons in a career pinnacle performance). However, when it soon becomes clear that Fletcher is harsh on his students to the point of abuse, the question is asked – are his methods of inflicting physical and emotional pain really about pushing Andrew to reach his full potential? Or is this a horrific, co-dependent relationship centred around abuse and toxic masculinity? From its first shot to its stunning final scene, Whiplash is a non-stop rush, as director Damien Chazelle announces himself to the world as a technical virtuoso on par with the jazz musicians he clearly worships. Like the non-stop drumbeat on the soundtrack, the film surges forward with a propulsive, unstoppable rhythm. What does it take to achieve perfection? This is the pertinent question of Whiplash, which it wisely never answers. But from its unerring shot construction to the exactitude of its editing, it is clear that Chazelle is well-aware of how to reach that point.
16. Under The Skin (2014)
Through the lens of its otherworldly point-of-view, Under The Skin takes a long, hard look at issues of appearance, feminism, and desire. From its abstract opening shots, Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi oddity draws the viewer into its hypnotic web. The movie’s uncanny glamour comes from watching Hollywood megastar Scarlett Johansson hit on real men in unscripted scenarios accompanied with its cryptic plot of an alien ‘invader’ preying on men. But what separates Under The Skin from the glut of coldly cerebral science fiction that emerged this decade is that beneath the surface (some might say ‘under the skin’) of the film is an ocean of emotional depth. This is a spartan film, pared down to a knife edge for maximum impact. Scenes like the encounter with the disfigured man, the cake eating, or (in a contender for the scene of the year) the drowning scene are made even more powerful through the film’s minimalism. With little more than a washed-out colour palette, handheld cinematography, Johansson’s studied blankness and Mica Levi’s haunting score, Glazer weaves a spellbinding story of alienation (literal and figurative) and of a creature growing into her own humanity.
15. It Follows (2014)
Some films are made on the strength of their premises. What if Heart of Darkness but during the Vietnam War is one. Or here’s a heist movie but in a dream. To that list, we can now add ‘what if having sex kills you by means of an implacable monster that follows you everywhere and can take on any form?’ Beyond that ingenious premise, David Robert Mitchell’s stunning sophomore effort is one of the greatest horror movies of all time by refusing to be a horror movie. For the most part, It Follows plays as a dreamy coming-of-age drama, set in an indeterminate time period and shot through a filter of nostalgic haze. But, in the middle of the languid conversations about time, dreams and sexuality, a figure walks ominously towards camera in the background. This is the true genesis of horror, that when you least expect it, the normalcy of life is turned completely around, and suddenly you are being screwed to death by your half-naked mother. The genius of It Follows (aside from Mitchell’s impeccable sense of shot composition and camera movement) comes from how its fiendishly flexible monster allows the film to serve as an allegory about the pain that comes with the loss of innocence and with growing up.
14. Moonlight (2016)
A gritty realist drama filled through a dreamlike, impressionistic haze, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight tells the story of Chiron through three phases of his life – as a young child in the projects (Alex Hibbert), a bullied teenager in school (Ashton Sanders), and a drug dealing adult (Trevante Rhodes). The fact that Chiron is gay, poor and black would seem to prime Moonlight as being a mere parade of misery, yet the film firmly rejects this, focusing not on Chiron’s struggles (though there are many of those), but on the moments of transcendence that he shares with his mother (Naomie Harris), a drug-dealing father figure (Mahershala Ali), and his best friend/lover Kevin (Andre Holland as an adult). Like the ocean waves where Chiron learns to swim, Jenkins’s camera dips and bobs through the world of Moonlight, capturing beauty and ugliness in equal measure. The best movies manage to tell specific stories with universal themes, and this describes Moonlight to a tee. It would be reductive to call Moonlight a ‘queer film’ or a ‘black film’, even though it interrogates sexual and racial identity in a way that few films have. Moonlight is a film for those who has struggled with their identity or who has grappled to reconcile with their past. It is a film about the power that comes from human connection and love. It is a film for everyone.
13. Spring Breakers (2013)
A beer-soaked day-glo fever dream that serves as both a celebration and a critique of the worst excesses of American culture, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, in its relatively slim 93-minute runtime, somehow manages to feel like too much movie. Part of it is the aforementioned excess, for there is only so many loving close-ups of tits and ass one can endure, but another part of it is how this film feels like a pure, unmediated experience. Most movies ask its audience to follow a plot or an arc or a journey, but Spring Breakers just wants you to bask in sunshine and hedonism, to lie back and let it wash all over you. This is a film that traffics in ambivalence – is it a moralistic scold about ‘the youth today’ or an amoral exploitation film? Is James Franco’s (never better) Alien predator or prey? Is the movie fetishising shallowness and ephemera or merely presenting the consequences of doing so? Who knows? Who cares? Just sink into its sun-baked, neon-splattered grimy pleasures and enjoy, for tomorrow we die. Perhaps that is the only message worth taking away from this trashiest of masterpieces. Spring break forever, bitches.
12. Toy Story 3 (2010)
What the hell is it with the movie industry trying to mess with perfection? Artists have to this point avoided the temptation to add more angels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and no writer has yet argued that Hamlet would be better with a sixth act. But when the film industry stumbles into a perfect story with a perfect ending, it just cannot leave well alone. Toy Story 3 would be quite a bit higher on this list if Pixar had decided not to piss on its legacy, but even with the added baggage of an unnecessary sequel, there is no denying the power of this movie. Those same thematic concerns – abandonment, maturity, the loss of innocence – resonate more than they ever have in a surprisingly dark jailbreak plot, and even the comedic setpieces are tinged with a melancholy that rises to tear-jerking levels in two key scenes. For the millennials (including myself) that grew up with this franchise, watching Andy give away his toys at the end of the movie is a painful, sobering reminder of the existential march of time, and there was perhaps no better way to end this storied trilogy than the shot of Woody, Buzz and gang all together even after Andy had grown up and moved on. All we have is each other, so let’s make the most of it. It is a beautiful message to end with, if only the powers that be had allowed the series to end.
11. The Florida Project (2017)
Sean Baker might be the most humanistic filmmaker working today. While the focus on his breakthrough work, Tangerine (2015) was on how it was shot on an iPhone 5, the true wonder of that film was how empathetically it conveyed the stories of its marginalised trans protagonists. And in The Florida Project, Baker refines that sensibility even further to tell the tale of a single mother and daughter barely scraping out a living in a grimy motel under the shadow of the Magic Kingdom. From this seemingly simple premise, The Florida Project launches into an evocative study of life on the margins, on what people can and will do simply to survive, and the joy in the fleeting flashes of transcendence. What is remarkable is how Baker refuses to sanctify or vilify its characters, choosing instead to present the actions and decisions of its characters with little judgment but much understanding. With its elaborate tableaux and candy coloured palette, The Florida Project resembles a Wes Anderson movie, only one with y’know, a heart. With indelible performances from untrained child actors, an Instagram celebrity and a never-better Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project is heartbreaking proof that at their very best, movies are, in the words of Roger Ebert, empathy machines.
At this point, let’s take a short break for five honourable mentions. In alphabetical order …
- Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) – Brad Bird’s impeccable thrill ride codified the Mission Impossible formula for the next decade, breathless physical stunts punctuated by breezy plotting, all carried on the back of Tom Cruise, the last of the true movie stars.
- Nocturama (2016) – A strange, eccentric film that follows a group of young people after committing a bomb attack, with director Bertrand Bonello crafting something that looks past politics to look at the uniquely modern contradictions of contemporary terrorism.
- Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (2019) – Quentin Tarantino’s most grown-up movie, a stunningly rendered nostalgia trip back to a moment where things irrevocably changed, filled with regret and yearning for a time gone by. Also, it has a flamethrower.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) – The single most stylish film of the decade made by its finest craftsman. Edgar Wright constructs a hilariously inventive and visually impressive movie that also serves as a reminder for its nerd audience that yes, sometimes, it is necessary to grow up and take responsibility.
- Shame (2011) – Steve McQueen’s brutal look at sex addiction is not an easy watch, but it is a rewarding one. With his signature long takes, McQueen follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) through a series of sexual encounters, as we see him become further isolated from his sister (Carey Mulligan) and himself.
10. Stray Dogs (2014)
The (as of writing) latest film of Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang, Stray Dogs is an equal parts hyper-realist and surrealist telling of the day-to-day existence of a homeless single-father family. With next to no dialogue, Tsai’s film concerns itself almost entirely with the almost animalistic business of survival – how the family eats, sleeps, relieves themselves – intercut with scenes of pure WTFery, such as the scene where the father (a spectacular Lee Kang Sheng) dresses a cabbage as his estranged wife before assaulting and eating it. This is an ugly film. Tsai’s Taiwan is depopulated and grimy, a city of deserted buildings and piled up garbage. The father stands in a traffic island all day holding up signs for real estate he cannot afford while the children play in the shade of glitzy billboards for luxury goods. They are pummelled by sun and rain, while Tsai’s camera stays ramrod still, refusing to cut or look away. And yet, even in the face of such despair, there is grace, as represented in the marathon final shot of a close-up of two faces staring at a mural. For up to twenty minutes, nothing changes. And then, for the briefest of seconds, the most minute and monumental of events happens, a minor thing that encapsulates all of Tsai’s rage and anguish at the fact that people have to live like this in the midst of such wealth. In the screening I was in, someone gasped. It might have been me. Who knows? This is a film that is not for everyone, but if you are willing, it can give a glimpse into a world that we are all too tempted to turn away from.
9. Before Midnight (2013)
Richard Linklater has become, to quote Andrei Tarkovsky, a sculptor in time. Linklater’s best work (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, A Scanner Darkly) all deal with the experience and the passage of time, with no better emblem of this than the Before series. Two characters, three films, three decades apart, set entirely within twenty-four hour timeframes in picturesque European cities. Before Midnight is certainly the most mature of all three films, ruminating on what happens when the initial flush of first love settles into a comfortable co-existence. The bravest thing that Linklater does is to tear the curtain away from the happy ending of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) after Before Sunset, leeching away the romance of the previous two movies for a cold harsh dose of reality. However, although Linklater and his collaborators are no romantics, they are certainly no cynics either, as Jesse and Celine talk, fight (in a twenty minute scene that ranks as one of the decade’s best) and reconcile over the span of the film. Yes, there is hurt and pain and broken dreams and unfulfilled ambitions in their relationship, but there is an unmistakable foundation of love. Is that enough to continue? Perhaps, say Linklater, Hawke and Delpy. After all, when all is said and done, what else is there to depend on but love?
8. Parasite (2019)
Bong Joon-Ho movies exist within their own genre. How can one describe something like The Host (2006)? Slapstick family drama monster horror-comedy? Or how about Snowpiercer (2013), which is an action sci-fi satire that contains, no joke, a pre-battle scene where one of the bad guy grunts literally guts a fish and drips its blood on the floor? But there is method in the madness, for more than anything, Bong understands that at the extremes of human emotion (where all his films reside) lie both tragedy and comedy in equal measure. And so it is in Parasite, a film that begins as a jaunty lighthearted lark about a family of indigent scammers who trick their way into becoming the household help for a rich family and ends as something else that defies description. Yet the wild swings in tone and subject matter are held steady by the expert hand of a master craftsman and the philosophical clarity of an artist. Parasite is Bong’s most nakedly angry film, a brutal and unrelenting satire of an economic system that fosters and perpetuates inequality. The fact that Parasite also has the nerve to be hilarious, knee-slapping entertainment is just a splash of bloody icing on a pristine white cake.
7. It’s Such A Beautiful Day (2012)
After watching Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day, all I could do was ask ‘how’? How could literal stick figures create such a feeling within me that I felt my heart about to burst? Hertzfeldt, of course, has been doing this for years, combining his surrealist imagination with morbid humour to create attention grabbing short films (such as viral sensation Rejected). It’s Such A Beautiful Day is in that same vein, except with a hefty dose of existential profundity and emotional weight. In the span of an hour, the film manages to be an empathetic look at the day-to-day struggles of people with mental illness, a treatise at the prison of heredity, and in a stunning final series of scenes that manages to exceed the transcendent power of The Tree Of Life, an attempt to encompass the entirety of the universe into a little stick figure. This is an auteurist project bar none, written, directed, drawn, voiced, and produced by Hertzfeldt. I go back to that same question – how can literal stick figures be imbued with so much meaning and feeling? It’s Such A Beautiful Day might be the apotheosis of what human beings were trying to do when they started painting pictures in caves – an attempt to represent the world to make sense of it, to the point where even now, we can look at a single stick figure comprised of lines and a circle and say ‘yes, that is a human being’.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese had a fabulous 2010s, with Shutter Island, Silence, and The Irishman all worthy entrants into one of the all-time great filmographies. However, nothing he did this decade compared to The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that takes all the usual Scorsese hallmarks and ramps them up to eleven. Bad behaviour? Here’s Jonah Hill flashing a prosthetic penis! A villainous protagonist? Here’s Leonardo DiCaprio in the performance of a lifetime, unhinged and irrepressible as Wall Street scam artist Jordan Belfort. Bravura filmmaking? Witness the entirety of the Quaaludes scene – a masterclass in shot selection, editing, and composition. It is three hours of everything that makes Scorsese great – the muscular, visceral camera work, the ability to coax brilliant performances from actors, the illicit thrill of misbehaviour coupled with that very Catholic guilt – shot with the energy of a newcomer and constructed with the artistry of a veteran. As with the best of Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street ruthlessly interrogates the audience’s culpability in the actions of its protagonist. Could a man like Belfort (not to mention some other New York financial scam artists) make it to the top if, at some level, we didn’t let him? In his seventies, the old master is still as ferocious and as relevant as he was in the seventies. Long may it continue. All hail St. Marty, patron saint of cinema.
5. The Social Network (2010)
Looking back a decade later, one could hardly predict how prescient The Social Network would turn out to be, and not just in the facile way of ‘oh everyone’s hooked on their phones and social media now lol’. David Fincher’s masterpiece of the founding of Facebook predicted not only how technology and our constructed personas could divide and isolate more than they connected, but also tapped into the wellspring of nerdy misogynistic entitlement that would define so many of the decade’s ugliest culture wars. Aside from Fincher’s typically exacting direction, Trent Reznor’s coldly emotive score and Aaron Sorkin’s motormouthed screenplay (the single most quotable one this decade), The Social Network‘s biggest strength was in its young cast, who at this point have still not topped their work in this movie. Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer and Justin Timberlake give career best performances, but the true misanthropic heart of the movie lies in Jesse Eisenberg’s snarling virtuosic portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, hiding his deep-rooted insecurity behind a thin veneer of condescension and insults. Is this movie accurate to reality? On the one hand, probably not, at least on a literal level. But on a thematic level, there might be no film that has better captured the shattered spirit of an era quite as well as The Social Network did.
4. Toni Erdmann (2016)
The phrase ‘three hour German comedy’ itself sounds like the punchline to an imaginary joke. Thankfully though, Toni Erdmann is very real, very German, very long, and very comedic. Equal parts realist satire and surreal farce, Maren Ade’s meisterstück centres around the very fraught father-daughter relationship between aging hippy Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and his high-strung corporate daughter Ines (Sandra Huller, in one of the performances of the decade). When Winfried’s visit to Romania (where Ines is working for an MNC) goes wrong, he decides to stick around as life coach Toni Erdmann, butting himself into Ines’s life (badly) disguised in a cheap wig and ridiculous false teeth. Against her better senses, Ines decide to play along. And so begins one of the oddest films I have ever seen, one that wrings as much humour out of the word ‘feedback’ as it does a ‘naked party’ that stands as one of the greatest examples of comic escalation in film. Along the way, Ade explores themes of alienation, late capitalism, and empathy, while always maintaining a firm grip on the film’s comic tone and the emotional core of its central relationship. Like its (imaginary) title character, Toni Erdmann is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, a bizarre, unclassifiable miracle that needs to be seen to be believed.
3. The Master (2012)
Who is ‘The Master’? The obvious answer is Lancaster Dodd (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), the would-be cult leader tapping on post-war American ennui to rise to power. Or is it Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the supposed acolyte whose obvious emotional damage continually fascinates and draws in Dodd? What about Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), the power behind the throne hiding behind a winsome smile? With a deliberate pace, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 masterpiece delves into the power relations within this triptych, and in doing so reveals numerous ugly truths about the American dream and its all-consuming conception of dominance and success. The Master is an opaque film that is challenging in its ambiguity, refusing to provide easy answers in the same way as Dodd. What is undoubtedly masterful is the sheer artistry and craftsmanship in front and behind the camera. It’s central trio give career-best performances (which says a lot when you consider the actors) – Phoenix is a gnarled reservoir of pain, Hoffman a bottomless fountain of charisma, and Adams an icy, Machiavellian presence. But it is Anderson, the current best American director, who this film belongs to. Filmed in gorgeous 70mm, with every shot and cut executed with an unpredictable and thrilling artistry, The Master is a beautiful, hypnotic reverie that will draw you further and further into its cult.
2. The Act of Killing (2013)
The word ‘brave’ has become a devalued commodity in criticism, used to describe things as trivial as a nude scene from an actor with a non-normative body type or a gimmick like making your movie look like a single shot. Then something like The Act of Killing comes along to truly define what brave filmmaking looks like. There is the physical bravery that comes with documenting atrocities that are still denied by the Indonesian government, a threat so real that director Joshua Oppenheimer is banned from the country and more than half his crew has to be anonymous. And there is the abstract bravery of daring to tell the story of a genocide from the killers’ point of view, to provide them enough rope to hang themselves with. No film has ever dealt so well with the concept of the banality of evil, as Oppenheimer’s camera captures the gregarious charisma of Anwar Congo, a twinkly-eyed grandpa who happens to be a mass murderer. Can this man break through decades of individual denial and government propaganda to fully confront what he has done? Can art succeed where reality has failed? The Act of Killing is that rarest of things – a work of art so prescient, so brilliant, so brave that it stares into the abyss and forces it to blink first.
So what could be better than a film that simultaneously succeeds as an avant-garde project and a realistic documentary? Why on earth could be superior to art?
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The answer is ‘myth’. Myth is the foundation stone of human civilisation. Art tells us who we could be, myth tells us who we are. And nothing this decade (or possibly even in cinematic history) was more mythic than Mad Max: Fury Road. On the surface, it is mindbogglingly inane, the kind of stuff that Martin Scorsese (sorry Marty) was complaining about. Essentially a two-hour long chase scene between thinly-sketched characters, Fury Road seems like a film fated to be (at best) a fun genre adventure like John Wick. But instead, in the hands of septuagenerian George Miller (directing with the verve of a man half his age), we got a work of art so primal it seemed as though it was chiselled into rock by cavemen. Not a single moment in its perfect screenplay is wasted, its sun-blasted cinematography is the peak of our current teal-and-orange obsession, the direction is a masterclass in staging, composing, and filming action, and in Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, it gave us an action movie icon for the ages. Like all the best myths, Fury Road goes right to the heart of our humanity, dealing with weighty themes of motherhood, environmentalism, and feminism all while having a dude on bungee cords shred a guitar that shoots out goddamn flames. Fury Road is pure cinema (it honestly works as a silent film, but that does so much disservice to the sound design and the score by Junkie XL), the sort that can be viewed and comprehended by anybody, regardless of language. It is powerful and vibrant and beautiful and violent and awe-inspiring and spectacular and just so motherfucking fun. It is the best film of the decade, etched in blood and chrome, painted in fire and sand, and is an example of the heights that only the medium of cinema can reach. God, what a film. What a lovely film.