100. A Field in England (2013), 99. The Lost City of Z (2016), 98. The Duke of Burgundy (2014), 97. Drive (2011), 96. Her (2013), 95. You Were Never Really Here (2017), 94. mother! (2017), 93. Swiss Army Man (2016), 92. I Saw the Devil (2010), 91. Suspiria (2018), 90. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), 89. The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), 88. Waves (2019), 87. The Red Turtle (2016), 86. Inception (2010), 85. First Reformed (2017), 84. The Eyes of My Mother (2016), 83. Burning (2018), 82. The Hunt (2012), 81. Hard to Be a God (2013), 80. Train to Busan (2016), 79. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), 78. Dunkirk (2017), 77. Mood Indigo (2013), 76. Alps (2011)
75. Mr. Turner (2014), 74. The Lobster (2015), 73. Amour Fou (2014), 72. Prometheus (2012), 71. Krisha (2015), 70. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), 69. Annihilation (2018), 68. The Babadook (2014), 67. The Revenant (2015), 66. Holy Motors (2012), 65. Spotlight (2015), 63. Zama (2017), 62. Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), 61. Incendies (2010), 60. Sleep Tight (2011), 59. Stations of the Cross (2014), 58. The Death of Stalin (2017), 57. Nocturnal Animals (2016), 56. Spring Breakers (2012), 55. The Turin Horse (2011), 54. Hugo (2011), 53. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019), 52. The Souvenir (2019), 51. Ida (2013)
50. Harmonium (2016), 49. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), 48. It Comes at Night (2017), 47. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), 46. Isle of Dogs (2018), 45. Uncut Gems (2019), 44. Love & Friendship (2016), 43. Macbeth (2015), 42. Under the Silver Lake (2018), 41. Nightcrawler (2014), 40. Anomalisa (2015), 39. Locke (2013), 38. Mandy (2018), 37. True Grit (2010), 36. The Wailing (2016), 35. The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015), 34. November (2017), 33. Berberian Sound Studio (2012), 32. The Tree of Life (2011), 31. Melancholia (2011), 30. A Ghost Story (2017), 29. The Square (2017), 28. The Social Network (2010), 27. Moonrise Kingdom (2012), 26. The Great Beauty (2013)
View the full list here: https://letterboxd.com/filmobjective/list/2010s/
There have been movies about the language of movies: Singin’ in the Rain passed through history and became Mulholland Drive. With Dogtooth, Lanthimos works on a baser level (he clues us in by showing the base parts of us as though they’re the baseline of cinema). Here’s a movie about the grammar of movies, the function of language, the way that it manufactures forms of truth. In King Lear, Old Tom told the blind Gloucester to “see” the cliffs of Dover that were not there: this is how all reality is constructed in Dogtooth. The audience is blind, and the movie describes things that aren’t there but that it wants us to see. Lanthimos reminds us that this is what all movies do in the first place.
He works with Angeliki Papoulia as sculptors used to work with muses: she has his exact energy. She never stops being hilarious and the biggest reason is that she never stops to laugh. As the oldest daughter of this family, which lives in a fantasy of manufactured information, she finds the role that struggles to break out of her in everything (she’s like a small child trapped in a middle-aged Athena). She and her siblings (Mary Tsoni and Christos Passalis) scour the yard looking for the “planes” that often fall into the hedges, hoping to earn one of their father’s (Christos Stergioglou) coveted stickers. They listen to tapes that misdefine the universe into existence for them (“Sea is the leather chair with wooden armrests like the one in the living room”). They wonder what it would be like to lick each other’s “keyboards.”
A trickle of new information sends their controlled environment into spasm. Lanthimos never stops picking us apart through it: the way we love each other and tell each other about life from the mouths of people on TV and catch planes in the backyard because there’s a sticker in it for the one who gets there first. Hilarious understatement hitches this chaos to family dinners out of time (a pure demonstration of parental angst) and the most awkward sex ever filmed.
People will write about this movie with words like “symbology” and “simulacrum.” Lanthimos is laughing because he knows they really mean “movies.”
Black and white is a cheap device in a modern movie if the movie wants you to pay attention to it. The Artist was proudly made as a tribute film, but as a tribute, it mimes magic without containing much of it. By contrast, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves could have been made in the real 1920s; it contains the same grain, the same happiness and sadness. The cultural fantasy of a German fairytale filtered through Spanish tradition tastes like the era that The Artist would prefer to make trivial, the era before sound when a German could adapt a French text into a new masterpiece or when the legend of Siegfried was as serious a matter as The Lord of the Rings.
This version of Snow White configures the fairytale even more closely to the fantasy of girls. A father with doleful eyes (Daniel Giménez Cacho) dies passively under the influence of the evil stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). The little girl, Carmen, grows up into Macarena García, who plays the title role like a powerful kid in the most immersive play-pretend, a world of cloth and shadow that’s built on her level. She dances like her mother and fights like her father. They are all mythic figures.
Berger’s interpretation of the dwarfs and Snow’s relationship to them verges on silliness (did one of the dwarfs have to be sexy? I remember asking this same question of The Hobbit movies). Berger makes it all work and not just because he equips cinematographer Kiko de la Rica to create the unstoppable classic photography (you’ll forget you’re not watching a Murnau). García takes us to the stars and shadows of her imagination with a smile. Verdú swoops in to tie it together with so much sexual vanity, such a palpable interpretation of a classic figure, that she makes scenes of appraisal so scathing that they become sad.
That’s what Berger ultimately does to the cruelty in this story: he gives it so much freedom that you feel bad for it. The expressionists would be proud.
- Phantom Thread
Understanding does not always lead to empathy. There are many movies that act like they understand what men desire and how society leads them to desire it, what women want from them and what they become to get it. There are few as potent as this. Paul Thomas Anderson knows what makes us toxic and in Phantom Thread, he materializes it to chilling results. This is a haunting fable of bad love and of the society that sees it every morning in the mirror.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an obsessive creative in the field of dressmaking, Edith Head by way of Howard Hughes. Every relationship in his life is with a woman: a woman who wants him to make her the way she wants to see herself to be. Woodcock’s power and significance in the lives of these society people is so sickening that it tastes like truth. His only other interaction is with his sister (Lesley Manville) who doesn’t control him so much as damage control him. He has a particular way of doing everything – a demand for silence unless he’s the one speaking – and the sister manages not so much a utopia as a self-committed prison. “Control” is the optimum word.
The form of love that this obsession creates with Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) is a nightmare of control. He dominates every aspect of her life and has no use for any form of love she knows, save one: her ability to take that control away from him. That’s the orgasm in Phantom Thread, the ultimate male fantasy: Woodcock longs to be relieved of Woodcock. It’s poison for him to do so, and yet this is the only release his society has left him. Alma is willing to love him so much that she’s willing to destroy him to do it.
Jonny Greenwood scores it like the greatest romance ever told and Anderson writes it like a tragicomedy. He knows enough about us to know that there’s often little difference.
- The Neon Demon
Decades of body horror led to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, which made the crucial change to body image horror. This is the horror of how people see themselves. The element that The Neon Demon takes and runs with – through halls of mirrors and runways of tribal neon glass – is that Carrie’s shame makes it less horrifying. We could pity ourselves through her horror. The Neon Demon breaks us by comparison. It doesn’t just represent body image horror: it’s the horror of knowing so few alternatives that you begin to like it.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) says that her mother used to call her “dangerous.” The reason is social: our body-obsessed media can handle breaking hundreds of girls a year, warping their dreams, driving them to cut their faces to stay young and kill each other to stay ahead. But it can’t handle someone who enjoys it. What makes her dangerous is that she represents another stage in body image horror evolution. This character walks through her world in a trance. She knows she’s invincible.
Nicolas Winding Refn is not a virtuoso writer (he’s more a stylist than a speaker) but he excels at writing material for himself. The Neon Demon has the same cold light that his speakers do. He fills the fringes of this movie with monsters of self-appraisal, people who have to stand the sight of themselves without the luxury of sleepwalking. Jena Malone yearns for beauty; Abbey Lee Kershaw yearns for immortality; Keanu Reeves yearns to be left alone. Christina Hendricks appears briefly in her perfect role: a beauty scout, played by a woman who has made a career of refusing to show men as much as they would like to see. Characters in Refn films are best left alone. When put together, the result is messy, and chemical – they react badly to the light. They become brutal-beautiful.
Natasha Braier provides some of the best light of the decade and Cliff Martinez’s score thrums: it’s techno-tribal, to match our obsessions. This isn’t the scariest horror film of the decade. But it should be.
- The Favourite
In the Jane Austen tradition, a true period piece is really an anti-period piece. Our interpretation of an era is always going to undo it, even and especially when it tries to be most accurate (it will always be more accurate to our view than to theirs). Yorgos Lanthimos interprets this as an opportunity not only to turn an era into a farce but to turn our idea of ourselves within that era into the farce’s ammunition.
The easy task would have been taking a disenfranchised person and giving them a voice that says: “I matter!” Lanthimos’s dark, acidic wit does something far more poetic, and far harder to swallow. The voice says instead: “I matter, as little as everyone else.”
Thus, a queen gets a powerhouse performer in Olivia Colman and uses her to display power as the most pitiable resource of human spirit possible. It takes devotion and twists it into a self-reprieving nightmare of passive aggression and cruel honesty: Rachel Weisz plays the queen’s confidante as though there’s no one in the world an insecure person wants more and needs less (you can’t help but be reminded of Weisz’s past roles in peppy adventures when she twists her lips around a calculated truth, truer the meaner it gets). Emma Stone sands herself into a terrifying edge to play the top of this triangle. She enters the movie as someone deserving of redemption – the redemption owed an entire era of sufferers – and leaves it making redemption seem like something an abuser would use to absolve themselves of that suffering. There’s no doubt that she can take care of herself: she breaks every little hero arc for little women in movies like this by taking care of herself so much that she becomes evil.
The result is that the beauty of the era (Robbie Ryan captures rooms in a fisheye, emphasizing the seas of angels on the ceilings, the laurels on every wall, the comically ornate moldings on every corner) becomes ironic all on its own. It’s made from that Baroque style that doesn’t hide cruelty (it hides pity) but gives people cover to act like cruelty is just a poor person’s word for luxury.
Would you believe that a moral heart, heroic and true as any in a fairytale, shines through in the end in one of the three? It’s as rare in Lanthimos’ films as honesty in a queen, and just as exciting.
Denis Villeneuve stole the crown that David Lynch stole from Hitchcock with Enemy, a film that like Vertigo is not about a murderer or villain but about a man’s idea of himself, and how that preys on him his whole life.
Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers that there’s an actor who looks exactly like him (also Gyllenhaal), living in luxury with his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), while Adam struggles to figure out himself living on a teacher’s salary. This doesn’t make him jealous and that’s key to the movie’s climate of anxiety. It only makes him curious. What he witnesses is more disillusioning than jealousy: he sees himself in the role of success, and how it made no difference to his demeanor. This is a double story of the same person, a story of facets, like Mulholland Drive but without the obvious shifts in the script to its different phases of film study. The dreamy result is just as scary.
Villeneuve, adapting the story from The Double, plays with time in Enemy, diverting our attention away from a character narrative and towards a Kafkian fable of identity, loathing, and self-tyranny. The controls that Adam places on himself are what drives his life into emotional squalor. Enemy doesn’t concern depression but an eternal unease, mirrored in Toronto’s slummy architecture and the film’s sickly, yellow tint. Spiders come to him in his dreams as a form of that unease, of the hierarchies of power he’s created within himself that make him fear the things he loves because of that very instinct to love. All this oppression ends up being an idea of women for this man, and the fear he has of them in equal measure to his instinct to protect them.
Is he afraid of an inability to love, or like Detective Scottie in Vertigo, of the instinct itself? Isabella Rossellini swoops in as his mother to remind us of Lynch. Blue Velvet might as well be Enemy’s mother. It clearly has the family looks.
Image is a screenshot from Blancanieves: © Wanda
Most coming of age stories rely on what age the characters are coming to. In the case of Columbus, life doesn’t come in ages: it comes at once, as a result of life; life is their state of change. Columbus, Ohio happens to be a modern architecture mecca. For first-time director Kogonada (who has been helping us understand film scenery through his essays for years), those buildings are phases of change that have stood still; they have the life everyone is dreaming of. Kogonada has not made a coming of age story. He’s de-aged it to give us back the monuments. It’s a coming of story.
Haley Lu Richardson has a smile as big as her face and dark, literary eyebrows; her hair looks better the less kempt it gets. She meets Jin (John Cho) and there’s no indication that we’re in a romance. He isn’t overly nice to her and this makes it easier for her to talk to him (it doesn’t seem like he wants anything). They have opposite problems and the same result: she could do anything she wants and so she stands still; his upbringing is trying to make him stand still and he’s obliging.
They both experience truths only possible in a coming of story. Casey (Richardson) finds herself lost in a world that has so much opportunity that it all seems like an obligation. Jin looks for truth in all the baggage of his upbringing, wondering what he can stand to keep and afford to leave behind. I’m not sure if Kogonada, a South Korean American himself, is trying to build Columbus on familiar ground on holy ground (or if there’s a difference). But even in this first film, he has the absolute tenacity of a director who knows why he built it where he does.
It’s hard to know what to get out of Columbus other than a feeling that love can never be separated from longing (remember when you saw Lost in Translation for the first time and wanted to whisper something special to someone?). After Columbus, I considered writing a letter to someone I hadn’t talked to in a long time. You know the one. She’s the one you never should have stopped writing to. Understanding Columbus halfway would make you understand why I felt compelled to write that letter after seeing it. Understanding it all the way (and this is something that the best movie romances have in common) means understanding why I still haven’t sent it.
- Only God Forgives
With enough Jodorowsky influence, a male sex fantasy can become a parable of regret. In this case, Nicolas Winding Refn envisions Bangkok as a city-sized nightclub interior in which men torture themselves in the hopes of getting off, staring at their hands as though it should be working so much better. They don’t do so necessarily because there’s blood on them, but perhaps because they wish they had the power to put some there.
It may not sound like I’m selling Only God Forgives but it’s not something that can be sold. Its narrative is passive-aggressively low on details to leave room for all the staring, masturbation, and stop-light-colored interiors. Yet, it’s really the sum of all that mood (rather than a timely message or motivated heart) that makes it so engaging.
There’s a lot of dread in Ryan Gosling’s stares and screams. Breaking one into the other makes him retroactively perfect for this movie, like he couldn’t have been judged in it until after we saw it break him. Kristin Scott Thomas pursing her lips around the memory of her dead son’s penis is just the kind of demotivation that pushes Refn to these weird corners of us that David Lynch visits instead of getting a summer home. A ruthless kendo expert (Vithaya Pansringarm) sings haunting karaoke and hunts Julian’s (Gosling’s) mob family with a short sword and an obsession with justice: he infects the sleaze of the movie with the frontier and that’s what makes its whole world so intoxicating. He’s the only one in the movie willing to call themselves “God.”
Only God Forgives is essentially a revenge story that the protagonist doesn’t care about; the villain is the only one in the right but the one least likely to forgive you for it; the mother is a deviant and the son is a slave to his own tight lips. Somehow, Refn’s history, a history of symbols and strangeness (Jodorowsky is his actual godfather) results in a twisted meeting between a Western and a karaoke bar. Every doorway shot, every elongated techno beat, every searing red hallway and excruciating gaze, is sleazy-enchanting. You would never go there, as you would never go to The Holy Mountain. But who could stop you from wanting to meet someone who had?
- Paddington 2
This is your answer to that question you always ask – yes, that one – about why movies aren’t as joyful as they used to be, why theaters play Transformers and not Singin’ in the Rain. Unlike a lot of movies that proclaim joy as a purpose while squandering the opportunity to have any on boilerplate plots about corporate greed and real estate initiatives (I’m thinking of Christopher Robin and Mary Poppins Returns), Paul King’s Paddington 2 simply lives that joy. In honor of it, I won’t tell you any more about the story other than in some images. They’re so nice that they deserve nothing less.
Paddington greets his dear aunt Lucy on the deck of a cardboard ship in a popping-book version of the London Bridge, a pastel memory of Michael Bond’s Paddington books, that once taught me to excuse myself, solve all my problems with sandwiches, and always wear a hat. When he misses her and their burrow in Peru, his jailcell sprouts with foliage and forest moonshine, more real than a dream because Paddington lives in a world where nothing is faker than a prison.
People respond to him as though they’re used to seeing talking bears, and he helps them study for interviews and puts sandwiches under their hats and tells them “Good morning” every day because he’s just that kind of bear. Not even the villain (Hugh Grant) can dampen his day: he merely gives Paddington a reason to have an adventure, and ultimately can be accused of nothing more heinous than wanting to be loved. Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) learns the hard way that Paddington doesn’t like rudeness against his Aunt Lucy. Yet, he's a friend in the end, as everyone is.
The movie isn’t all fluff, of course: the most remarkable thing about it is that it’s free of punishment not because it couldn’t think of any, but because it knows that a little self-assessment, being so rare, is where the best discoveries are hiding to begin with. You will find that you will know everyone in Paddington 2 by name. You will even find yourself mirroring Aunt Lucy and wishing the best for all of them.
Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) remarks that “It’s a tough, competitive world out there, and I worry a good-natured little bear might get trampled underfoot.” I suppose we’ve all worried this of good-natured little movies at one point or another. Paddington 2 makes no great or pretentious effort to prove that it’s the best or most endurable movie ever. But it reminds us, even when things seem to be going badly, that sometimes the world still says, “excuse me.”
- Cold War
There are movies based on history, but Pawel Pawlikowski makes his movies from history. They are paced with the rhythm of an entire region’s evolution, as though you could cut them across the middle and see the rings of all its ambition and triumph and stagnation in the stump. Cold War is a tale of coldness, in a time that lashed its history into being a mouthpiece for its propaganda. We see the magic of a region’s folklore turn to Stalinist angst and browbeating. Pawlikowski shows us this change through song, in a film that’s like a nesting doll: history reveals love. Love reveals music. Music reveals us.
The people in Cold War don’t know what they want from life. They don’t even know that they’re in a romance. Do you understand how that’s what makes it so romantic? Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig move in and out of love like turns of the toe. Kulig ruins herself at a party because she doesn’t know what to do with her world, in a time that has no room for love; she doesn’t show up to run away with her mentor because she doesn’t know what to do with herself in that world.
At the center of all this anxiety is a nation that’s lashing its talking points together out of treasured history. Cold War isn’t so much a tale of statist oppression as it is of state-assisted self-harm. Pawlikowski knows enough to know that the worst thing a powerful state can do is make you a mirror to itself.
He sets up a love story to take that state down, even though no one could ever hurt it. He does so the old way, reserved for street-facing windows, falling leaves, and old songs. He forces Casablanca to be subjected to more of our history: this is what would have happened to Rick and Ilsa if they had been forced to keep going and survive the Cold War, pawning goods and passing in and out of each other’s lives (and arms). Casablanca is the greatest tale of giving up in all the movies. Pawlikowski makes its reflection: the ultimate story of giving in.
- Force Majeure
“Force Majeure” is a term used in contracts to describe something that neither party can control. Ruben Östlund makes this movie from the perspective that we stake our identity as men and women in modern society on human nature that should be reassessed as a force majeure. The disaster that sends the story spiraling is tiny: an avalanche is coming and a man gets scared in a way that men never “should.” He doesn’t stand between his wife and the snow; he flees.
His inability to admit that he did so is the first subject of searing conversational tension in Force Majeure, which plays out in dialogue filmed from one angle like a secret interview, giving it a feeling of bleak appraisal (Lanthimos does this too). It’s always close to being funny, but Östlund makes it seem important that you understand why you want to laugh, but can’t.
His wife begs him to admit to her that he was scared, but she doesn’t understand us as Östlund does, who knows that the requirement that he admits that he was less than a man is the reason that any conscientious man would fight against the admittance like his life depended on it. It might.
The very notion of talking about this subject sends rifts between the other couples as well. It’s one thing to acknowledge that not all men are Achilles, but another to admit that yours isn’t, or that you yourself are not one. The blatant white imagery of the snow comes with its own blocking; it frames the story as a miniature. The ski lodge becomes a dark form of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a place that similarly contains all of our human instincts, but which leads to a very different assessment of them. All the other things we argue about seem like merely the context, around which Force Majeure is the one essential premise.
Östlund’s gift for essentials comes to bear on his ending especially, which is a perfect anthem to modern gender politics and a crushing defeat to them. Do you understand why it has to be both to be either? It’s because the age of giving power back to our women has to eventually turn into an age of understanding the forces that oppress our men. Otherwise, they will both stay lost in the snow.
Image is a screenshot from The Favourite: © Fox Searchlight Pictures
- La La Land
Hollywood loves to love itself and we don’t tend to argue the point. No matter how much we learn about them, we all have little Norma Desmond complexes: La La Land explodes onto the screen, unironically throwing up skirts and tapping toes and to us it will always be an anthem, even if it has the tone of a comeuppance. The movie dances around poolsides, across famous murals, and even takes a trip to the stars. That opening on the highway begins in shadow, though you may have been too bedazzled to notice (you were supposed to be). That shadow contains more truth than the swimming pools about what Damien Chazelle is looking for in La La Land.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) dance together like they’re dancing alone, owing to their particular energy. Gosling has a way of showing no emotion as though it’s a defense mechanism and Stone has a way of showing a lot of emotion for the same reason. They have dreams of stardom that turn into dreams of each other: these connect because Hollywood has forced them to do so over a hundred years of love affairs. Chazelle adapts them all.
The evolution of these dreams together is slap-happy, in colors and wide shots and candy vistas. And then it comes down. It’s not a tragedy of accidents or anger but of unlikeliness that Chazelle draws out of the old musical. He does so in such a way that seems to re-energize the dream: by adding a shadow, he’s making us more aware of the light source. Someone in this movie thinks of the idea that “Nostalgia is the biggest killer of art forms that’s ever existed” and someone believes it. But Chazelle reminds us that there are a few things in life that are nostalgic the first time. Love is one. A certain kind of movie is another.
- The Witch
A lot of movies have been going around concerning femininity’s place in the world, from its own perspective and from the perspective of its scholars. Robert Eggers handled it most well by putting it into action, where over-intellectuals have tried to put it into film versions of college lectures. The Witch is a self-described “New England Folktale” and it deserves this description down to the dialect, the dirty cheeks, the skeletal trees. It’s about women but also about how the world looks by being about it. The combination is what makes it brilliant.
The world hungers in The Witch. The ground is grey; it has a look of cold. The entire film is overcast. A witch that lives in a forest and does unspeakable things can be partly forgiven here, even distantly, because she doesn’t invade a peaceful world: she represents the one we already made. The sense that she belongs in it is a sense of style, of Jarin Blaschke’s icy framework, held over long glances and movements of weary certainty. Unlike most horror films, the most powerful tension in Eggers’ is not that people are put into a situation where they don’t know what to do, but that the world is so bad anyway that no adversity seems surprising to them. The witch manifests her setting.
This is true of its people, as much as of its trees. The family, abandoned by their village, bound by pride to make it in the wilderness on a daily diet of prayer and toil, accept the existence of witches more readily in themselves than in the woods. The idea that the daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), has given into the allure of witchcraft is a description of a time period’s suspicion of itself more than of her (Thomasin isn’t all innocent, but her wrongdoing is a result of bad whims rather than a bad nature). The witch stands in for the suspicion of sexual thoughts in anyone and that suspicion drives every urge, no matter how well-meaning, to mean death.
Even the young children feel this of each other in The Witch, staring through each other’s burlap, wondering why nature is forcing them to think sinfully. Carried by Ralph Ineson as the father (he speaks in rumbles) and a mother (Kate Dickie) thrown into a state of sadness so great that it becomes mythological (she’s like if La Pieta had Prometheus’ fate), The Witch evolves. People looking for a “monster in the woods” movie will find Goya’s rendition of “American Gothic.” Its air will weigh you down.
- Blade Runner 2049
Long-awaited sequels are not a recipe for disaster but for satisfaction (to some of us, that’s the truer disaster). We incubate our movies until they become fairytales to us. Yet to the companies that made them, they are still products: reheated, repackaged, resold. Denis Villeneuve is the escape clause to this cycle of buyer’s remorse; with Blade Runner 2049, he woke the blockbuster back up. He did so with someone else’s world.
The relationship between this movie and Ridley Scott’s original is complicated: imagine the first is a genome and the second is a cell. Scott made a pictorial film, engrossingly ambiguous, but Villeneuve makes the pictures move; it has working parts. It succeeds as a noir first, pitting Agent K (Ryan Gosling) against the one thing that all detectives in all noirs must confront for them to be truly initiated into the genre: their own humanity. Villeneuve sees sci-fi as an opportunity to do this literally – the film builds a world where every inch is a test of the human spirit. Roger Deakins lights some of his best work in this film, and he lights it like someone who knows for sure that he’s really lighting us.
Our image of ourselves gets broken and rebuilt in this New LA (it’s really a laboratory). There are dens of secondhand prostitutes, willing to love you as someone else; there are factories that build people. There are stone figures crouching in an eternal orgasm in a red desert, in a world that no longer has any clue about how to find pleasure. A robot stands on the same bridge George Bailey once considered jumping from and wonders if his life is worth living. A hologram (Ana de Armas) professes love that may be real, or it may be her programming. That’s unsettling because we think it matters which it is. Here’s the real clincher (Blade Runner 2049 knows it in its bones): how much more unsettling would it be if it didn’t matter at all?
- The Florida Project
You may see this movie from far away, as you might see six-year-old Mooney and her lil’ friends, and imagine in your thoughtful armchair that what makes it so poetic is its commentary, its upheaval of the system, what it says about us and our capitalistic, winner-takes-all society. But you’d be getting to the end of Sean Baker’s intentions (his movie distantly implies some of these things) by the wrong route. The most poetic thing about The Florida Project is not actually its commentary but its simplicity. Baker’s film is built not on the desire to be meaningful, but the desire to feel joy. And that means more than anything.
Vinaite gives a life-defining performance as Mooney’s mom, Halley, who lives on the fringes of homelessness in a slummy hotel in my backyard: the tattered edges of I-Drive, outside of the wealth sphere generated by the presence of Walt Disney World. To give you some clue of my personal attachment to this film, I’ve been to the exact Twistee Treat that Mooney and her friends con out of an ice cream cone; I’ve driven by the same gift shops without going in and used to walk by the same juice-stands. I’ve seen the signs that stand with crushing, frank irony on the edges of beaten streets, on the corner of bootleg ticket windows and kitschy Florida-print merchandise shops. There’s one that says, “Snow White Ln. Next Turn.” For Halley and Mooney, it will always be the next turn.
The Florida Project is about slumminess but it isn’t slummy: it is a fable of childhood longing merely wrapped up in what we can see about their condition and what Mooney can’t. She visits abandoned houses and pretends that they’re haunted mansions; she moos at grazing cows pretending she’s on safari. She gets bread from the back of a charity van not with wonderment or sadness but with a shopper’s routine selectiveness. The sadness at the heart of The Florida Project is not in the things that the children do, but in the fact that these things have become so normal. When her mom has to make their rent by prostituting herself, we only hear it, from Mooney’s bathtub, where we can feel these experiences becoming painful memories even though she can’t make sense of them, right now. Only the righteous, brusque Bobby (a career-high for Willem Dafoe at that point) makes any effort to defend them. This makes Halley hate him most, in a way; by helping her, he reminds her how much help she needs.
It’s this sense of lowness, looking up at the people who hurt and defend you, with which Baker decodes our whole world for us. He does it in the only way the decoding could work: three feet from the ground.
Image is a screenshot from Blade Runner 2049: © Warner Bros. Pictures
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson, like Buster Keaton, has a way of making you forget that the joke is on you. His worlds are not moved by the characters running around inside of them: they are subjected to it, like figurines in a doll’s house, or Buster struggling against a windy shore. Now, that house will always be this hotel in my mind. Anderson took his own aesthetic and finally gave it a home.
The first essential decision for this film was to decide not to rely on comedians. M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is a force of verbal Keatonisms because like Keaton he can make a lack of awareness seem like a great advantage. More awareness would mean more attempts to be funny, and nothing could be less funny in Anderson’s worlds than that (imagine Ben Stiller in his role).
He’s framed on all sides by a menagerie (no other word seems appropriate) of colorful people: Jeff Goldblum oversees an auction, Willem Dafoe cracks his brass knuckles, Edward Norton titters, Tilda Swinton withers (though, as Gustave reminisces, “she was dynamite in the sack”). This is the kind of world where that kind of language wouldn’t offend anyone. Saying it may make you more pigheaded, like pastries make you fat, but that’s all “offensiveness” is in an Anderson world: an indulgence.
Somewhere in there is a romance between newcomer Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan (who may seem underused, perhaps retroactively, but the film doesn’t linger on much for long). There are flavors of a whodunit but no clear indicators of who “who” is or what “it” could even be. People will just start talking in flowers, yarns of flowers, the camera will wait for them to come toward or away from itself, knowing the funny qualities of stillness as well as any gagman in history. The best comedy of the decade ends up being one of its most poignant films: a gag turned to autumntime, and in such a way that makes it seem somehow like a lost privilege before the laughs have even died down. In someone else, it would seem like self-importance. In Anderson, it just seems like life.
- Shin Godzilla
Shin Godzilla marks the emergence of humility in a series where giant monsters used to be the only attraction (or at least: the only one that foreign audiences could perceive). This film barely has a protagonist, contains virtually no romance, downtime, or senseless destruction. It’s a monster film without any hallmarks of the genre; it’s essentially a political thriller. And it’s a revelation.
Every building that falls affects boards of civic and moral professionals: we see the aftermath of a disaster like Godzilla, not just on a landscape, but on our civilization process. In order to attack Godzilla, three separate agencies must research, draft, and approve legislation, send it up chains of command, receive subsidiary and tertiary approval, and present it to leaders for the final call. By doing so, the processes themselves fall under attack: they are the new destructive force that the film assesses as more dangerous than Godzilla. Moral hesitancy is scarier to this movie than nuclear power, which enters the movie as a potential solution, one which would be an attack on Japan in a different way: it would prove that they could not solve their problems for themselves. They could destroy this Godzilla, but only by invoking him.
That’s where Shin Godzilla goes from being merely a perfectly structured thriller, made with meticulous logic and perfect timing on the part of its screenplay by Hideaki Anno, and becomes something even more. It is as affirming an argument for cultural self-reliance as I saw all decade, an uplifting fable of Japanese ingenuity, a triumph of thinking over planning and reason over politics. This is why it’s vital, and about so much more than Godzilla, as Godzilla always is. It uses his threat of apocalypse in another way, to make us believe we stand a chance as a human race, not because we can defeat him, but because we can change in order to do so.
Of course, as we discover, he can change too.
- First Man
This must go down in the history of switching gears. Damien Chazelle goes from La La Land, with its candy-coated wides and fantasy vistas of Hollywood, Hollywood as it is in the minds of those who hope it’s real, to First Man. Barely a shot in the film is not handheld. He takes real events and crunches them with closeness; Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) occupies this entire film, and you may be pressed to describe him in more than a few words. He wouldn’t have the words to help you.
All the truth of this movie (and it becomes a truth of us) is contained in that fact. It’s Armstrong’s dutiful self-destruction, his calm entropy, that drives us to achievements that should not have been possible. Why not? Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) reminisces on her love of Neil. She loved that he was “stable.” In the stability of the mid-century American male, Chazelle knows to go looking for the deepest truths of his disregard, his repression, and his triumph. This man went to an impossible place unarmed with the emotions that would make it important. Chazelle makes us realize that those were also the emotions that would have made it impossible.
Many were angry that they didn’t plant the flag on-screen. I’m going to speculate why they omitted it. Armstrong, or this version of him, went to space – Justin Hurwitz’s neo-classical score sings him a lullaby of all space movies – and didn’t know how to make sense of it. He couldn’t see himself planting the flag because this version of him couldn’t see himself. He thought of his daughter instead, who makes the flag worth planting in the first place. He looked at the earth and realized that there are no borders from space. Chazelle aimed to figure out the truth of one man. He decoded an entire nation.
- Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer's previous film was an upsetting psychological drama (Birth) that he made almost ten years before Under the Skin. His dreams of body horror and displacement are accelerating to attack speed: Under the Skin is a total vision of being a foreigner in your own body. It’s only science fiction if you think about it hard enough.
This film is about a sensory experience as much as it’s about anything: blanched shores, cold trees, stone walls. Mica Levi’s haunting score recreates a 70s British horror energy that makes it seem somehow windier and more barren. Scarlett Johansson, now more commonly known for emotional acting, was at this point living a sort of fantasy of physicality: she’s lips and eyes in this movie. That doesn’t make her disposable: it makes the lips essential.
The sex in this movie is a Jungian dreamworld, an underwater labyrinth where skin pops out in the darkness and everything else is blacker than black. Space warps around the feelings of her entrances and exits; you’re never sure where anything is, and it makes the film’s landscape more mental than mortal.
How she assesses herself and reacts to the way she feels in her own body is where the skeleton of a simple horror premise becomes a perfect nightmare, a terrible dream of the instinct to not recognize yourself. Just having skin, just transitioning from incorporeal to corporeal, seems to have given her all of our weaknesses. Under the Skin contains sex and self-loathing and predation and sexual vampirism and a hundred things we do every day. Yet (and this is the scariest thing of all), the person who does them in this movie doesn't do so out of experience but imitation.
Perhaps no horror villain (or horror director) has ever killed out of so much introspection. She makes you feel like murder is her mirror, an ethereal, warped form of self-discovery. No plot summary can define this experience.
- Upstream Color
Shane Carruth proved he could think through a movie with Primer back in 2004, but Upstream Color is really a proof of life. He goes beyond the mathematics of movies to create a passing image of something that’s impossible to see all at once. His movie transcends movies.
Time and space yield to him; the characters pass through their lives and each other in trances that become unnerving merely from seeming so familiar. Passages (there’s no other word for how Carruth arranges the parts here) seem scary but only because they contain so much pain. It’s pain beyond pain: the pain of not even knowing how to hurt. The film’s world is blanched, pure melancholy, and the people wandering it experience themselves over and over. They disconnect from their ambitions, get tangled up in other people’s memories; they leave bits of their identity everywhere, and get theirs from bits of everywhere they’ve been.
Carruth attacks this complex idea without remorse: he makes a movie as structurally complex as his message, and as any description of it inevitably becomes. Kris (Amy Seimetz), a sleepwalker played with a soldier’s intensity, becomes a victim of mind control. That’s what you’d say if you were looking for science fiction in Upstream Color. Another way to say it is that she loses herself. Carruth lampoons our daily rituals and philosophies; he turns the very way we process meaning into irony (the only comparable film this decade would be Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, and even that seemed burdened by comparison with the desire to be comedic).
There are undefinable elements of physical storytelling in Upstream Color that have to be experienced. As far as its feeling is concerned, Carruth puts himself on the frontlines for it, paired with Seimetz in his own fairytale of longing, as if to say that he’s brave enough to be the example of all our lives. Doing so, he seems to say, the least we could do is try to understand why that might be important. And it really is.
Image is a screenshot from Whiplash: © Sony Pictures Classics
Science fiction films have a lineage that includes feats of great thoughtfulness and also great carnage. In the same year of 1977, two films defined the divide for us, and it’s now hard to find a sci-fi film not based on Star Wars. But by choosing the other lineage, Arrival stands with Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an argument for how we view ourselves in an instance of great change, rather than how we view our special effects. Denis Villeneuve makes a film that is about first contact more deeply than any movie has ever been: it extrapolates that first moment not only into an entire film but reverse-extrapolates our entire existence in the universe from that moment. It’s the whole human endeavor in one event.
Amy Adams gives a non-affected performance, the kind that doesn’t get rewarded by committees because it has no grand illusions (she’s the actress of the decade and proves it with Arrival). But her ability to stand in for many figures at once – for motherhood, reason, language, empathy – comes from Adams’ reluctance to cheapen her work with a pretension of “performance.” She’s withdrawn into herself in Arrival, and the perfection of that perspective (it’s almost all in her eyes) is reciprocated by Ted Chiang’s script, which ultimately withdraws into her as well. She is a person that becomes this story.
Language is the subject of the movie, but it tackles it so gravely that language itself becomes a signpost to all science fiction, to the way in which we speculate, to the concept of ourselves in speculation to begin with. The aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey gave us the ability to form rational patterns of thought; from this, our first instinct was to see weapons everywhere. Arrival does this too, but by acknowledging that the conceptualization is the weapon, its story becomes a total examination of why we think we need weapons in the first place. Like the best sci-fi, it tackles the whole human experience from one little process, one event, one relationship – a mother’s perspective turns into a tiny infinity. This is Villeneuve’s masterpiece, and he’s the kind of director who deserves that sought-after extra two words that elevates him to a master in his own right: it’s his masterpiece, so far.
- The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers follows up his portrait of women’s peril in The VVitch with the male equivalent: the notion of man’s power-hunger expanded into a sweaty eternity. Above grasses as dry and tall as they were in Ordet, and beneath skies just as damning (though the deities have changed), The Lighthouse tells a fable of how we treat ourselves, and more: of how we treat our idea of ourselves in others. It’s not just the flaw in men that Eggers discovers, but the flaw in how society wishes men to be. He’s made a labor parable, a movie about masculinity and ambition and most of all about challenging where we think these come from to begin with.
As Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) becomes more like his mad employer, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), he increasingly resents him. He has been driven to earn, to deserve, to achieve, and stands on shores beaten by rain, taking it onto his back so the barrow of coals stays dry, hoping to have a name worth having. Society has given him this goal in the form of the only relevant relationship in his life: between workman and employer. The codes this entails, the boundaries of duty and gender that have to break to keep the relationship alive, give the film an undone quality. It feels like we’re living the rest of this story even now. The Lighthouse is the rest of the world in miniature.
Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke even use some miniatures to get us there. They have thrown us back to another age; the Dreyer comparison wasn’t meant lightly. The grain is real –the world flashes across these lenses like it used to, like all the German stone and slanted sky has come back for one last whisper, to remind us how the art that’s creepy scares us most of all because it reminds us of ourselves. Eyes full of repentance, which don’t know what to repent, and shadows drawn back across rocks and cheeks and plains of angry sea, fill the movie with a gallery’s worth of frames. Each is a study of us.
- Birdman, or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Maybe with a title that sounds like a poetry slam series you’d expect Birdman to feel like anything but that: who would make such a thing if they were going to title it as one? But the fluid energy that Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki bring to the film is quite like a poetry reading, with an effect of social upheaval contained in simple phrases, long, uncut swathes of drums and monologues, and an unrelenting highness of self that can only come from someone who thinks of their art as their art, as poets do.
The film transitions seamlessly between emotional battlefields, all circling around Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) past and present with the pressure of a lucid dream. Lubezki maintains long illusions of tracking (Birdman feels like a single shot) while Iñárritu uses the opportunity to play with time: characters might stop talking on a causeway, look down, and see themselves on stage within the same shot. It’s the temporal playground in the white room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey but extrapolated into real life: the magic of movies makes science fiction ultimately unnecessary to pull off such a feat.
Birdman’s somber energy makes us feel as though we’re seeing Riggan’s whole life play out this way, and it only does so because we don’t. His trials with his daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan), his troubled actors (Edward Norton, in a feature-length cameo as himself), worried producers, and most of all with his alter ego, the costumed aquiline superhero he once played, are haunting, most of all because they are also funny.
The cocktail of all of that together tastes like truth even though it looks like anger (or maybe, especially because it does). The perfect balance of tones, the sweaty brawls and Carver monologues and boners don’t elevate Birdman nearly as much as the fact that it’s quietly laughing through all of it. That’s the element that makes it about us. Movies aren’t always safe being aware of themselves and Birdman certainly isn’t: it just has enough self to survive it. It turns danger into truth.
Birdman mistakes self-harm for a self-portrait from his first moments on screen. Here’s a movie that gets away with hatred, and loves itself for it.
- The Master
What do we really understand about the generation of men and boys who were sent off to fight someone else’s war? The enigmatic Master, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), will be compared to L. Ron Hubbard, but to understand Paul Thomas Anderson’s film (to understand all of his films), you have to realize that Dodd is not an exception in the case of men. He’s a rule that became self-aware of the game. He puts words to the pain of a generation of men, who don’t know what to expect of themselves or of their lives. They live in jungles of shadows; they crave and they hurt, push and get pushed. If all of Anderson’s films are about the way that men see (and are seen), The Master is how we can decode all of them. Anderson has given us his Rosetta Stone.
If Dodd is a description of an age, a time period’s verse of poetry, then Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who quells nothing, is a raging portrait of that poetry in motion. He’s steam and lust and purposelessness. Dodd wonders a crucial thing, to himself: what would it mean to tame this man? Would it mean that all men are salvageable, that “The Cause” is a just one? Or would it mean that we are all on Freddie’s level, that The Cause is another form of the force that made him in the first place?
Mihai Mălaimare Jr. films the exchanges in which these questions play out in wild contrasts of perspective, at times as heavy and mechanical as an Eisenstein montage and at others as aloof and serenely beautiful as a frame of the desert that David Lean sent Lawrence into to become a man. The mediator is a teary-eyed watcher called Peggy, whom Amy Adams gives the demeanor of a mythic mother, cradling her husband like a gift she knows she will outlast. She becomes another form of the same pressures and the same hurt, which mines the intellects of men without ever stopping to consider if they can feel true pleasure (or pain). Every inch of The Master is a form of this prison that we have made for our men and in which men and women have become imprisoned together. Anderson wonders why they can’t get out. He probably hopes we’ll start wondering too, one day.
Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer in the same way that The Hustler tells the story of a pool player. The drum-set becomes a battlefield; the players are arranged in positions of command and conflict so that we can see what they’re made of. As Bert said of Fast Eddie once, it really comes down to character.
Damien Chazelle has made a reversal of the modern myth of believing in yourself. He asks us to find the will to pursue a craft without treating success and failure as the monuments we think they are. This relative newcomer finds as much self-reliance in his movie as Kipling wrote into his poems, as much martyrdom as Dryer filmed into Joan of Arc.
But who is the martyr? Is it the artist who gives everything to his craft or the audience who decided not to? You can’t understand Whiplash until you can answer that question.
His actors are martyrs of another kind: they give so much to these roles that they appear to destroy themselves. They all retain a kind of esteem that makes the destruction a testimonial rather than a burden. J.K. Simmons has been wonderfully playful as scenery in other movies – Fletcher is a denunciation of that wonder hard enough to at last prove that he exists. Miles Teller takes the young lover within himself that has propelled him through indie stardom and crushes him, looking for something more. Tom Cross’s meticulous, furious editing turns drum-sets into landscapes and practice sessions into torture scenes. This film asks as much of itself as Fletcher asks of his students, with an intensity that cannot be condoned, but whose results should make us question everything we think we know about achievement.
Chazelle has made the masterpiece of the decade because he’s willing to look at us and ask why we con ourselves out of true achievement, not because we have so little opportunities for self-appraisal but so many. To Chazelle (and Fletcher), this is why we wait for everyone to tell us we did a “good job” and expect nothing more. Chazelle expects more. He destroys so much of us in this movie that it could only be for one reason: to prove we exist. He did.
Title image is a screenshot from The Master: © The Weinstein Company