2010’s – The Decade’s Best Films So Far…

12/06/2014

It’s December 2014 and I’m sitting at my computer trying to justify yet another top 10 list. I wrote it compulsively. I needed a distraction from screenwriting that was just too abstract at the moment. I also want an excuse to revisit some old favorite films, and December 2014 seems like the right time to do it. I just signed the lease on my first ever solo apartment. I worked sixteen hours of overtime this week to help bolster my funds. The last film I worked on was a horror project I’ve talked about a little bit on this blog. That was over two months ago. The last great film I saw in theaters was Force Majeure. I’m still processing my thoughts, but as both drama and visual poetry I haven’t seen anything better in a long time.

Five years ago, December 2009, I was in my junior year of college. I was living in a dorm at the time, working 9-12 hours a week between classes. I was probably also sitting on a computer. I wrote a lot back then—more than I do now. I read over my old stuff now and it doesn’t seem better, but it felt a lot better when I was writing it. I didn’t know enough to know what I was doing wrong or to wonder why anyone would care about what I was saying. There’s a lot of embarrassing hyperbole and even more outright lying to make myself seem intelligent. My most recent production was a near-thirty minute zombie arthouse film I shot for a single camera production class, which I was still editing for the end-of-semester due date. I couldn’t find anything to cut (eventually I’d axe almost half without any loss whatsoever). The last great film I saw in theaters was Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, which I’d watched probably five times already. I was also working on an end-of-decade list of favorite films, which seemed like an obvious thing to do because the decade was ending and everyone would obviously care what I thought about it.

If the point of an intro is to give the audience an urgent and tangible exigency for reading the full article, I’m not sure I’m up to that right now. The following blurbs range from personal to some attempt at universality, but they really come from a conviction that I care about the films listed. Andrey Tarkovsky thought that film was, at its core, an attempt to recover lost time. If there’s a point to revisit the best films of a certain time period, it can’t just be about current events and communal experiences. It has to be personal too.

The other day I was walking through the halls at work, and a pop song started playing over the speakers. I didn’t identify the song right away, but it made me feel a deep, unbelievably layered sense of sadness—far beyond the range of a three minute ballad. I felt irrelevant and uncertain of the future, the same way I did a few years ago when I first left college and ate free gas station doughnuts at midnight while working at Wal-Mart. Everything I’d thought about life had begun unraveling, and suddenly the narratives that made life seem so simple and easy in my head couldn’t even get me out of bed in the morning. At the same time, I also felt a stronger sense of myself isolated in the chaos. So much of what I was terrified of losing had been lost, and yet here I was still coping, still making sense of things. Whatever the truth turned out to be, I’d figure my way out through it. I’m not sure how that could all be part of one emotional pang, but there it was. I knew I had to figure out what that song was. I rushed to the computer and started trying to remember the lyrics for a Google search. Sure enough, it took me to one of the films on this list.

There are so many details that bog us down, so many irrelevant immediacies that cloud our sense of beauty in life. A simple reminder of a truth lost or abstract observation bludgeoned by pragmatic necessity can be exactly what we need to recover some basic part of ourselves. It’s in this spirit that I say maybe, just maybe, it would be worth your while to read a list of movies I really liked that came out in the last five years.

10.  Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Her

“We watched the end of the century compressed on a tiny screen…”

So sang Win Butler in 2010, whose band Arcade Fire wrote the score for Spike Jonze’ most recent foray into American magical realism. Smart and level-headed people have disparaged the term “digital” as the death of cinema. Digital projection, digital downloads, digital streaming: while the national pastime has gone from three hour communal trips to the theater to five minute Youtube clips with headphones, even some cineaste somewhere is watching Lawrence of Arabia on their phone or tablet. What was once large and communal became introverted and disposable. This is all old news, but it seems like even 15 years after the Phantom Menace trailer crashed the web, every movie about the topic cycles back to the same tired dichotomies.

It’s no coincidence that the man who basically invented the viral video has adjusted better to these times than most. Jonze rose to prominence embracing technology. His films aren’t merely unique and uncompromising. They’re also flawless, which is a major reason studios keep handing him large budgets for his eccentric visions. In this way Her serves as a mission statement. There is no grand thesis against technology. Technology, as with anything, is a place where love can expand and grow. However, the way we use technology must be ready to accommodate the uncomfortable extremes that cause many to use it as a security blanket. Her feels alive because it carries no antiquated biases. It feels like an extension of not just Arcade Fire (who are far preachier than Jonze) but Daft Punk and Radiohead: looking forward to the new horizon, not without fear and trepidation, but also with a clear eye for the beauty that is possible anywhere there can be love.

9. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Tree of Life

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then Terrence Malick faces a new challenge this decade. For nineteen years he disappeared from the film scene entirely. Every film he has released has been greeted with a degree of critical reverence and commercial viability reserved for arthouse masters from a different era; in part because they’re masterpieces, but also maybe somewhat because they’re so rare. Maybe that’s why Tree of Life has become more divisive in recent years. When it was released, even more tentative viewers were hesitant to criticize its ‘meaning of life, the universe, and everything” ambitions. “Even if it’s minor Malick, every Malick is a treasure,” I heard more than one person say like they were accommodating family members at Thanksgiving. Now, with the release of To the Wonder and even more projects on the way, prolific Malick faces a new series of challenges. His once-per-decade nature walks and star-gazing were a welcome retreat from a chaotic and violent world. As a yearly ritual, do they become a little indulgent? Do we really need motivation to detach from known reality and escape to guessed-upon heavens? Never mind the fact that Malick seems lost in ancient canonical writings and utterly disinterested in the way these arguments manifest themselves in the modern world. His idea of relevance is Sean Penn walking through a bunch of glass towers for forty minutes.

Ultimately Tree of Life demands spirituality from the audience that may not be in keeping with Malick’s widespread appeal. Viewers are asked to journey inward and to the ends of the universe, and must expect there’s something surprising worth finding there. The thoughts of dead white dudes and art works in expensive European museums pervade everything, as do commentaries on the apple pie American past nobody really believes in anymore. It’s not a timely synthesis, that’s for sure. It’s nostalgic and idealistic. It’s also one of the most gorgeous things ever recorded to film. Beauty alone isn’t enough, but maybe the questions it raises are more timely than we let on. Maybe a film so defiantly out of synch with everything a crowded, hectic, commercial, pragmatic society wants is exactly what said society needs. Regardless where you side on the film’s answers, the questions it asks are central to what it means to be human. It’s also telling that the sequences with the family have connected with almost everyone. Nowhere else in major cinema was the sheer wonder behind every passing moment in life emphasized with such force. Some day people will ask what life was like in the twenty-first century. But always, people will wonder, “What is life like?” Besides Malick, who else is answering that question so eloquently?

8. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

Social Network

How do you argue for the importance of a film that doubles as an argument for its own importance? Nearly every moment in The Social Network insists, “Yes, this is what life is like now. Is this not terribly relevant?” We open with the White Stripes so we know the filmmakers are hip. We close with the Beatles so we know their story is timeless. The most compelling performance comes from one of the world’s most famous pop stars. The score comes courtesy of a rock star. The screenwriter inspired a generation of idealists with The West Wing. The director inspired a generation of nihilists with Fight Club. How could you possibly do more to universalize a film that has lines like, “We lived on farms, and then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” or “You write your snide bullshit from dark rooms because that’s what the angry today do,” or “Creation myths need a devil?” How could you possibly campaign more fervently for a movie structured after Citizen Kane and Rashomon, that outright refers to itself as a sequel to Paddy Chayefsky’s seminal “film of the times” Network in the freaking title!?

Well maybe you could argue that it’s even more impressive because the film lives up to its own hype. Sorkin’s endless barrage of specialized language really is spot on. His techie dialog feels like a shocking update on Revenge of the Nerds to the same degree Lord of the Rings special effects compare to Willow. Fincher meanwhile has always been hip to what the kids are into. He tones down the more obvious notes in the screenplay and imbues every moment with bravado, style, and solemnity like he’s producing the next great hiphop album. And of course for all its posturing, the film’s real accomplishment is ambiguity. I’ve never seen it and had the same experience. Some find Mark a villain. Others see him as a hero. The cult of personality charges every detail, while the actual facts are savaged by our biases even as we all watch the same evidence together. The film doesn’t shy away from the rampant sexism in computer culture, nor does it outright demonize Mark as he’s young and shy and acting the way many of us did at that age, albeit on a far less public level. The most dramatic moments are outright lies. Some of the most relevant details are buried. All that posturing, it turns out, could actually be sleight of hand distracting us from the far more impressive and understated film happening under our noses.

7. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)

Spring Breakers

Terrence Malick on acid or feature-length Britney Spears video? Feminist statement or egregious exploitation film? Harmony Korine’s most lucid statement blurs the lines of good taste, as usual. His stunt casting and au currant hyper-montage balk at the notion that art is merely self-contained, even as his Gen Y sociopathic heroes experience catharsis and maturity entirely separate from the context of morality or introspection. It’s a film that appears from a distance to be sending up the shallowness of modern culture, but refuses to judge its pathologically shallow protagonists even as they murder and steal to no end but their own selfishness. Here the needs of the many take a backseat to the needs of the few. Like other more cerebral coming of age outlaw tales like Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, the bodies piling up are almost irrelevant within the stories of young people finding themselves through conflict and sacrifice. You could overstate its importance or even the depth of what it’s saying, but you could also sell far short the need for this kind of incisive look at the simple aesthetic beauty and ugliness of pop culture. There will always be a pragmatic part of us that doesn’t believe in the social whole. There will always be a bug in us guiding us on our own journeys of self-actualization even if it means crushing everyone in our path. Like a Romantic poet, Korine tracks the journey without commenting on its basic social recklessness—if our feelings don’t care, why should the artist? Nobody else is making films like this. Oh yeah, and it’s got James Franco fellating a pistol and former Disney princesses in bikinis and neon baklavas doing choreographed dances with shotguns. Say what you will, that demands a response.

6. Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

Moneyball

Forget the challenges of adapting a book ofstatistics into a compelling screenplay. Just imagine all the ways a script handled by the writers of both Schindler’s List and The West Wing, set in the months immediately following 9/11, could have oversold its relevance with trumped up metaphors and social allusions to try to make “mere baseball” something more compelling. What makes Sorkin’s screenplay so astute is the fact that it never aspires to anything more than mere baseball. He realizes that the dramas that drive and overwhelm us funnel down all-too-naturally to the games we play for amusement. The connections are there if you choose to make them. Billy Beane, the real life general manager of the Oakland Athletics, had a career in professional baseball defined by peak physical prowess but underwhelming performance. As he transitioned from player to upper management, Beane developed numerous superstitions about the way the world worked. Though he’d never admit it, there’s some part of him deep down—the same that told ancient people the sun was a chariot and that sacrifices could improve the harvest—that makes him believe every strikeout and loss constitutes some insurmountable curse upon his person. This deeply ingrained fatalism extends to his broken marriage, to his job, and to his understandable hesitation in changing the way baseball is played forever. Again, none of this holds up in the light, just like most of the logic of “inside baseball” doesn’t hold up. Still, it lodges itself into every argument, every refusal to change, every gear in machines ranging from one man’s ego to a multi-billion dollar sports franchise to–should you choose to extrapolate–a country hesitant to join the twenty-first century. In my opinion, Moneyball is the best thing Aaron Sorkin has ever written. He mostly forgoes his usual rhetoric and proves a master at navigating the strange and irrational in human behavior.

5. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

Moonrise Kingdom

After The Royal Tenenbaums, critics tried to peg Wes Anderson as the voice of a generation. In one respect they weren’t wrong. Just watch Bottle Rocket and try to comprehend how it was rejected by Sundance—then name a comedy that’s been accepted in the last ten years that hasn’t tried to imitate it. Anderson literally changed the nature of what we laugh at and what we’re willing to suspend our disbelief for. The trouble, made clear by the financial disaster of his follow-up masterpiece The Life Aquatic, is that Wes could never stand for anything as specific as a generation because his films exist outside of time. Compare the original Bottle Rocket short with the feature that evolved years later. The two are nearly identical, except he cut the pop culture-specific Tarantino/Smith-esque dialog about an episode of Starsky and Hutch. Ever since, Anderson has avoided the obvious and the specific. Rushmore takes place at a Christian school where nobody talks about Jesus. Tenenbaums is set in a New York where the Statue of Liberty doesn’t exist. Moonrise Kingdom is a tale about sixties rebellion that finds the whole idea of the sixties hilarious. The rebels without a cause aren’t childlike teenagers but literal children. The harsh divisions in society become literal costumes ranging from Davy Crocket to Charlie Brown. It’s a joyfully artless pastiche, perpetually winking with a palette of bright primary colors and an educational recording of Benjamin Britten that singles out all the individual instruments for the listener’s benefit. Of course, the commentary isn’t worth anything if the music isn’t good. By making light with the specifics, Anderson gets to what really interests him: those emotional truths that transcend context. Other filmmakers are representing the world as it is. Anderson learned early that he’s at his best representing the world as he wants it to be. Moonrise Kingdom is an emotional powerhouse from a filmmaker who invented his own reality and insisted upon it so strongly and eloquently that perhaps our reality shifted a little to match.

4. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2014)

The Wind Rises

A confession is in order here: I’m not the world’s biggest Miyazaki fan. Admittedly I haven’t seen all the hits, but what I have seen has inspired a range of responses from mild amusement to outright disinterest. His films are disorderly and whimsical to the point of chaos. There’s simply no way you people who couldn’t sit through Wall-E thought My Neighbor Totoro was fun. I don’t believe you! You’re lying!

Ahem… I’m ready to admit I was wrong.

I haven’t revisited any of his older films to confirm this, but anyone who can craft a film as beautiful and deeply affecting as The Wind Rises simply has to be a master. Who is an internet hack like me to say otherwise? Through a dreamlike haze Miyazaki portrays both our world and the world of dream, and the eternal struggle to see the one realized within the other. The real-life hero is Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of the fighter planes that Japan used for kamikaze warfare in WWII. Harsh realities explode to the forefront in an earthquake sequence that might be the best in any film this century. At other times, as when an older Jiro walks a dreamscape across the wreckage of warfare his planes made possible, that reality is obscured by the protagonist’s selective vision. Some found this obfuscation offensive, but I think they’re pretty drastically missing the point. There’s a time and place for agitprop.  Miyazaki is asking his audience to embrace a mystery with far-reaching implications. Would we be nearly so willing to embrace the moral ambiguity of capitalism’s blind march forward if we were allowed to think that every participant in destruction were a subhuman villain? Jiro is brave, he’s intelligent, he’s hardworking, and he cares for the people around him. His fatal flaw is the system he allows himself to belong to and his belief that he’s only an individual, not part of a guilty whole. Like all of us, he sees the narrative he chooses and the outside world only occasionally creeps in. If the long sequences in Nazi Germany and the lingering presence of Japanese death and suffering (what is the crack of that volcano besides the flash of a bomb?) aren’t strong enough foreshadowing of the death to come, then perhaps this isn’t your film. Miyazaki is content to rest in that strange and treacherous space that is the human soul; to find the beauty and the terror of possibility in every impulse that drives us forward. Even if I have yet to personally connect with his whole output, I can understand why he would want this as his final statement. It unreservedly begs the next generation to set themselves to work building the world of tomorrow, while no-less-directly reminding them of the way those efforts can be mangled to destroy. What thought could be more relevant?

3. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation

The best dissection of class warfare, gender inequality, and conservative ignorance in the last twenty years came out of a country that still forces its women to wear a hijab in public and commits executions by way of stoning. One could probably make too much of that. It was also rigorously scanned by Iranian censors, which is another matter that could easily exhaust a few thousand words. Whether he’s driven by political necessity more immediate than the troubles of millionaires in Malibu, or whether he’s just that good, it’s no secret that Asghar Farhadi is writing with devastating clarity and urgency evocative of the masterpieces of the polemical American seventies. His direction is understated and functional. His screenplays hit with the kind of force that draws entirely warranted comparisons to Chekhov and Miller. Great theater does not always make for great film, but regardless of the medium, drama this good survives. Hundreds of years from now, when borders are redrawn and languages have evolved beyond recognition; when people wonder what we worried about in the twentieth century; what caused reasonable people to disagree and separate; I wouldn’t be shocked at all if the broad-sided Iron Mans and Hunger Games float in digital oblivion while A Separation is taught in high schools the world over.

2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)

Frances Ha

I quote Kicking and Screaming at least once a day. The Squid and the Whale is among the most beautiful and terrifying movies I’ve ever seen. Reading the Greenberg screenplay is a master class in just how much human insight it takes to be a great writer. (hint: more than most of us have the patience for) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou remains a defining religious experience and one of my favorite films ever. Noah Baumbach has been one of cinema’s real treasures for almost two decades, so know my full meaning when I say I really didn’t think he had this in him. Frances is more than just great introspective filmmaking. It has an urgency and improvised energy that recall Fellini or Truffaut or Chaplin. In La Dolce Vita, Fellini made a film more in love with life than any other, while also more cynical about its pleasures than any he’d made before. Baumbach’s goals are more pragmatic but no less dearly felt. Frances’ love of life and her inability to grow up are hopelessly intertwined. She struggles to find stability, pay the rent, or escape her childlike narcissisms for the same reasons she kind of inspires everyone she meets: that spirit that makes her dance is something she’s too smart to sacrifice even to make rent. Gretta Gerwig gives a performance for the ages. Her clownish smile is a generation-wide response to the countless “What’s wrong with Millennials” articles that demand instant maturity by way of unconditional surrender to the demands of a capitalist, classist society. But who can help but feel their hearts invade their throats as Frances describes the love she’s so clumsily chasing? Who can help but think that maybe, if they’d compromised a little less, if they’d held on just a little longer, they could have preserved a little more of the dream in their meticulous life plans? If childlike optimism isn’t heroic, empty pragmatism isn’t either. Finding that balance, as Frances learns and the world observes in wonder, isn’t always a matter of being broken—sometimes it’s just a matter of growing up.

1. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

Margaret

In case you needed evidence that it’s getting harder for true masterpieces to make their way through Hollywood, Kenneth Lonergan’s miraculous philoso-drama was held back by Fox Searchlight for almost six years before they unceremoniously tried to bury it in a handful of theaters. Not even goodwill from Sidney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, and an impressive cast of A-listers could redeem it for the studios who saw its confrontational post-9/11 agenda as subversive to the only cause that mattered: their bottom lines. It seems almost too perfect that the best film of the modern era was rescued by the 90’s dinosaurs known as critics. Deemed irrelevant by the forces of Twitter and Facebook, the critical establishment saw something special in Margaret and weaponized social media like never before. #TeamMargaret was soon trending on twitter, and the film rocketed to the top of Indiewire’s best films list despite a middling Rotten Tomatoes Score. Buoyed almost solely by critical opinion, a film with no box office that barely received a DVD release soon earned itself near-universal acclaim and a deluxe special edition. Of course the macro-narrative here is easy. Defining what makes Margaret the best film of a generation is more difficult. Populated by complex emotions, violent contradictions, long-winded debates on post-modern thought, and characters at once painfully real and encyclopedically representative of modern society’s biggest questions, it transcends all the bounds of modern narrative; abstractly beautiful like music while also stimulating as any work by modern philosophers. It’s like Bach meets David Foster Wallace. Here is the plain where our day-to-day emotional realities come squarely into conflict with our intellectual apprehension of the world. Here is the place where a sentence like that one actually means something about the way you behave at work, the way you cross the street, the way you talk to your neighbors. Here is the movie making the argument for the continued relevance of art in a world that thinks it knows far more than it possibly could, both substantially and by the simple fact that it exists.

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