by InRO Staff Feature Articles Film Year in Review

Top 100 Films of the Decade: 25-1

January 29, 2020

The Last Word from Your Editor, Sam C. Mac: With the 2010s officially over, the time seems right for another departure: after 12 years (with a small break in the middle), I’m stepping down as this site’s Editor-in-Chief, to be succeeded by co-founder (and unapologetic Iron & Wine-lover) Luke Gorham. I don’t plan on getting too personal here, but I do want to say that, as long as I’ve been an adult, InRO has been my baby. And so it does seem kind of fitting that, only now — as my wife and I prepare to welcome our first child, in just a few short weeks — do I finally feel ready to let that responsibility go. Of course, I couldn’t leave without first rallying the troops, past and present InRO writers alike (and there are plenty of names here that haven’t graced these pages in years), for one last round of painstakingly assembled lists. Over the next week, InRO will finally unveil its picks for the Top 100 Films and the Top 50 Albums of the Decade — showing up late for that party, obviously, but in these abominable times, it never seems like a bad idea to celebrate art that deserves it. The ideal decade would have probably brought both an abundance of great works and an agreeable environment in which to enjoy them. The 2010s got exactly half of that equation right.


 

| Top 100 Films of the Decade : 100-76 |

| Top 100 Films of the Decade : 75-51 |

| Top 100 Films of the Decade : 50-26 |

 

25. The animated watercolor images of Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya may evoke enchantment and imaginative whimsy, but the emotions underneath are earthy and sometimes brutal. The titular princess springs forth from magical beginnings — a bamboo cutter discovers her in a bamboo shoot — and the film’s earliest moments throb with limitless possibilities, as girl sprouts into a woman in seemingly no time. But this woman, exuding so much thirst for life, soon finds her effervescence ground underfoot by, well, Japanese traditions: Her “father” means well, grooming her for a supposedly easy life of luxurious royalty, but it doesn’t take long for the princess to find it stifling, almost soul-killing. The tragedy at the heart of Takahata’s film is that its main character is never given the opportunity to fully grasp what it takes to live on earth, warts and all, until it is much too late. Takahata’s swan song is a work of both awe-inspiring, even otherworldly sensuality and hard-earned, worldly wisdom. Kenji Fujishima


24. Harmony Korine has long been a curator of cultural grotesquerie, his films populated by oddball types and diffused with a certain crackpot miasma. With Spring Breakers, he plays on these expectations, still mining society’s dark corners, but here taking on its ills through the gauzy prism of pop. The “American Dream” is namechecked throughout Spring Breakers, but Korine is actually more interested in the evolution of this concept’s meaning — specifically, its shifting definitions of freedom. Traditional notions of the Dream died with the systemic weaponization of wealth against the poor, with the idea of freedom becoming something to ‘take’ rather than attain. Korine’s vision, to that end, is one of an escapist fever dream, “spring break” as capitalist revolution, and he reappropriates pop — sonically, imagistically, rhythmically — into a neon nightmare of aspirational struggle. Platitudes (“Spring break… forever”) are repeated and made mantra in persistent voiceover, and flashbacks/flashforwards lend the already dreamlike aesthetic a sense of inevitability. Korine’s penchant for debaucherous poeticizing has never been stronger: Spring Breakers represents the sensual as well as sensory clawing into adulthood, into a new modernity fashioned in the image of empty excess. The characters here are lost and found in the day-glo uplighting and moody strobes of a promiseless hedonism. But more than anything, pop is built on the promises of more, meaning that no one here is judged for their pursuit. Condemned is a society that fetishizes and validates this particular fantasy, yes, but Korine remains deeply empathetic to his characters and the human tumult of their circumstances. He also turns the stigma of spring break on its head and crafts something of a feminist reclamation, his camera doubling as the male gaze, indulgent, almost lascivious, as it roils across women’s bikini-clad and booze-slicked bodies and weaves through scenes of revelry. And yet, women hold all the power, in a sense; they become the ultimate commodity, nimbly turning male hubris against them with easy swagger. Fitting, then, that the film’s most iconic scene incorporates its many concerns into a surprisingly moving cover of Britney Spears, a figure whose persona, and all it accordingly suggests, looms large, and a song which begins, in both prayer and protest, “Notice me.” Luke Gorham


23. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset signed off with one of modern American cinema’s most indelible moments: Céline (Julie Delpy) slinkily dances around her apartment to the strains of a live Nina Simone crooning “Just in Time”. Then, turning and intimating Nina’s pursed-lip sass, she warns her former — and possibly present — lover, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” For nearly 10 years, we were left never completely certain if the allure of Nina and Céline in that cozy apartment was enough to keep Jesse (Ethan Hawke) planted on that couch. Before Midnight begins as Jesse bids farewell to the son we knew he had with the wife he wasn’t happy with in Sunset. They’re at the airport, after spending the summer together, and you can tell that the separation is hard for Jesse. Soon he arrives back at the car outside, where not only is Céline waiting, but also two tiny sleeping blondes in the backseat. As is the hallmark of this series (at least since Sunset), a beautifully unforced dialogue initiates between Jesse and Céline, who drive back to their summer getaway in the foothills of Greece. What’s already apparent is that, while the two have enjoyed many years together, the fairytale ending many imagined has not come to fruition. The recent past includes a bitter divorce and an ensuing custody battle, and the couple’s divergent roots in France and America have caused a constant and enduring strain. Before Midnight, then, holds a very different value than the fugue-state drama of Before Sunrise: Linklater shows how compatible personalities in the short term grow incompatible over the long haul, how extenuating circumstances can mount and diminish the exclusivity of even the happiest couple, and how geographical separation can loom over even the closest of lovers. Most importantly — and daringly — it holds the couple themselves accountable for failure, as pettiness and an inability to see what good they have puts their relationship in critical jeopardy. Mac


22. A glorious ode to all things cinema, Leos Carax’s deliriously unhinged trip down the rabbit hole is one of the decade’s most wholly inventive films. Following a mysterious agent (brilliantly played by Denis Lavant) as he travels from job to job, using his chameleon-like skills to transform himself into everything from an old beggar woman to a sex-crazed hobo, a caring father to an assassin, Holy Motors seems to channel the work of David Lynch, Baz Luhrmann, and Vincente Minnelli, while paying homage to such horror luminaries as Jean Rollin, Georges Franju, and even Showa-era Godzilla films. Surrounded by the decadent decay of a crumbling Paris, Holy Motors is as much an elegy for the cinema as it is a love letter, seemingly embodying everything cinema is, was, and will be. Matthew Lucas


21. Leave it up to Paul Verhoeven to deliver the most perversely pleasurable and thrillingly unpredictable cinematic litmus test of the year with Elle, his first film in almost a decade. The inciting incident — the CEO of a gaming company, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), is brutally raped in her home by a masked assailant — may seem like too perfect a fit for the Dutch provocateur, liable to result in empty button-pushing or shallow provocation. And to be sure, Elle is provocative, delivering scene after indelible scene of pitch-black humor, caustic dialogue, and unnerving violence — such as the Buñuelian farce of a Christmas dinner party, and the twisted romanticism of a window-shutting scene during a sudden windstorm. But working with a superb screenplay by David Birke (adapted from Philippe Dijan’s novel, Oh…), Verhoeven manages to not just provoke, but also deepen and complicate at every turn, piling on this story’s ostensible contradictions and apparent digressions with an unnerving lucidity of perspective. Over the course of two rollicking hours, Elle plunges us into the constellation of forces that define Michèle’s world, attempting to answer that most banal and chilling of questions… Why? And just when you think Verhoeven has peeled back every possible layer to expose the depths of human desire, a stray line from a minor character reframes all that came before, revealing just how little we truly understand. Lawrence Garcia


20. Before the opening sequence of the decade — a slow, seductive slide through a tropical swill shack, scored to a karaoke’d version of Dean Martin’s “Sway” which stays on the soundtrack even after the lip-synching impresario who’s warbling it is fatally shivved in the gut — Chantal Akerman lingers on a little Stygian light show. Behind the title credits of Almayer’s Folly, a boat’s headlamps illuminate dark choppy waters, though it’s unclear where this vessel is headed, who’s recorded on its manifest, and whether we are departing, arriving, or simply bobbing in place. This might be the riverboat that ferries Nina — indigenous offspring of Almayer, eternal daughter of imperialism — back home from the city, where she’s spent a decade suspended behind the walls of white settler culture, alone and unmoored. The film itself floats uneasily in time: like Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels, Almayer’s Folly scrambles the period signifiers that would typically mark our temporal location, which suggests that the afterlives of empire play on, even as their aged political bodies transform or wither away — a cruel old song without a singer. But Nina is young and not yet defeated by history, so perhaps those mast lights will, in fact, chart an alternate path for her, carry her away from her father and the manifold tyrannies of hate, towards some other, better world. Then again, we remember that Almayer’s Folly starts where Nina will end up — in that death-haunted bar — and, more sorrowfully, that Akerman herself could not envision a future nobler than our rotten past. She’s gone; we’re still here, adrift in a perpetual colonial present. Evan Morgan


19. Maren Ade’s three-hour screwball comedy is the best film made about parenthood since the death of Yasujiro Ozu, as well as being surely among the funniest German films ever made. The father in the film is a hulking goof fond of deadpan, lowbrow pranks; his daughter is a serious, high-ranking consultant. The latter’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, so when dad drops in on her, uninvited, she quickly sends him packing, only for him to return later, in disguise, as “Toni Erdmann,” a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends and coworkers. Toni Erdmann is a symphony of double takes, everyone stunned and charmed by Toni’s oddity, by the mischievous eyeball twinkle that invites us all to play along with his silly games. An escalating series of hilarious and devastating set-pieces, the film impossibly reconciles the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, capturing the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. The greatest love of all, indeed. Sean Gilman


18. As is often the case when it comes to the later work of Jean-Luc Godard, the images of Film Socialisme are multifarious, as capable of arresting one’s vision in their immediacy (a smile; an animal, pre-language) as they are of bemusing one’s comprehension, alluding to ideas through nothing less than a complex layering of images and sounds. This film — Godard’s first to be shot entirely on digital — evolves over the course of three ‘movements’ akin to the classical structure of his other recent films. The first takes place on a cruise ship, the ill-fated Costa Concordia, under the title “Things such as”; next, we’re moved back onto dry land for “Quo Vadis Europa,” a sequence taking place at a provincial garage where the children of a family decide they must contest their local elections; and finally, in “Humanities,” the six points of the cruise’s voyage (“six places, real history”) meet in a multicultural montage of historical injustice to detail a pronouncement for the future. Film Socialisme‘s production team was tasked with filming the ship and its proceedings on a first voyage before finally meeting with Godard and the actors for a second one. In this way, the film can be called a ‘collective project.’ But it goes even beyond the production. Indeed, if there’s one thing that Godard’s reappropriation of images brings to mind it’s the socialist spirit to which the penultimate quotation (referenced above) alludes. The FBI “criminalizes copying.” in Godard’s own words, but just like the symbols and icons seen during the final movement, these “copies” find their resurgence in a new light, a new context, a new meaning whose associative power destroys postmodern inertia. If an image of gold coins is enough to build civilizations then perhaps this cruise ship, this space outside of history will run aground eventually and every hedonic consumer aboard will look away from the flashing lights and stimulation of their slot machines to the empty lecture-hall of Alain Badiou and sit down before him. A revolution in three parts! No, that just sounds facetious. Sam Thomas-Redfern


17. Conceived in 2011, produced post-Charlie Hebdo, and released just months after the Bataclan attacks, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is uniquely enfolded into its present moment; it’s a zeitgeist film in the truest (and most productive) sense. Tracing the lead-up to simultaneous attacks across Paris, Nocturama’s first hour snakes across the French capital in a Rivettian maze of terse, temporally warped action. Bonello captures, with destabilizing acuity, the simultaneity and (literal) tunnel vision of modern engagement with reality. Terrorism is a pretext. In the attack’s aftermath, Nocturama transforms, moving into the terrain of the late George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. But now the zombies are on the inside, holed up in a shopping mall, awaiting the apocalypse. That Bonello limns all this with pulsating, seductive energy makes Nocturama impressive; that he collapses the distance between psychology and action makes it great. “My Way” resounds at a crucial moment — at once ironic and anthemic, a hollow postmodern gesture and a desperate cry to the heavens. “It was bound to happen, right?” Garcia


16. Largely reviled by critics, Michael Mann’s lone film from this decade has — since its release in early 2015 — developed a devoted online following, and In Review Online has been proud to play a part in that. Much of the praise for Blackhat among Mann fans will sound familiar, focussing on the unabashed romanticism, the elegiac lament for a specific time, and the electric digital cinematography. But what marks Blackhat as one of Mann’s best films, and indeed one of the decade’s, is how all these ‘Mann-isms’ are folded into the film’s world-encompassing, dialectical nature, through its exploration — under the guise of a thriller — of the withering away of individuality, and the last gasps of collectivism, as states take on overtly disciplinary, panopticon-like characteristics. Following convicted hacker and genius coder Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) as he joins an international team of computer analysts and law enforcement officials who pursue a highly dangerous, border-defying terrorist, Blackhat juxtaposes fleeting moments of concrete intimacy and solidarity with the overwhelming sense that both space and self are increasingly rarefied and haunted by the refractions and redoublings of the world’s digital medium. In this sense, Blackhat is a film about ghosts, its characters each reckoning with humanity’s newly alienated nature as specters in an increasingly mechanized world-machine. Taking into account the film’s narrative and ideas, one might tangentially survey just what failed to click with general audiences and critics, which is to say the straight-facedly romantic (Tang Wei’s performance as Chen, Hathaway’s lover, is a revelation), melancholic, and even tragic way of dealing with ideas — which cuts against the pretext of genre. But for those who are wired in a certain way, Blackhat can be appreciated from both angles: a sterling ode to the Hong Kong action movie masters, in its form, and a deeply moving portrait of our contemporary condition as a society, in its philosophical shape. Matt McCracken


15. Poor Hayao Miyazaki. One of the biggest figureheads within Japanese animation, and the dude can’t stand most of this weeb shit. Miyazaki sacrificed nearly everything  — most notably his relationship with his wife and two children — to build his empire, Studio Ghibli. Now, he has to contend with an industry that’s perfectly fine with pumping out slavery apologias and child pornography, one that continuously violates basic workers’ rights laws with punishing hours and diminishing pay. Miyazaki sees the world burning around him, and his title of international poster boy for ‘artistic’ anime is something he could probably do without. Knowledge of all this helps to locate the emotional center of The Wind Rises, to understand the internal struggles of Jiro Horikoshi (a clear stand-in for Miyazaki) as he continues to pursue his life-long dream of constructing the most beautiful aircraft man can design — or the most magnificently hand-drawn rendering of it that Studio Ghilbi can muster. This dream brings Jiro nothing but pain and anguish: first, the death of his wife, and then, the solemn realization that he’s helped exacerbate the death toll of a World War. (Miyazaki’s original ending for The Wind Rises depicted Jiro suffering in the pits of hell for his sins, just in case the self-loathing on display in this film as is wasn’t enough.) Of his actions, Jiro says “all I wanted to do was make something beautiful,” and in turn, Miyazaki makes something rather beautiful himself — a rumination on the filmmaker’s own inability to forgive himself for his actions, yet understanding the power of those ambitions. After decades of demonstrating his prowess as a master of his craft, Miyazaki practically claims, through this film, that it’s all for naught, a gesture that’s dramatically out-of-character. The Wind Rises would have served as a remarkable bookend to one of the most impressive filmographies — animated or not — to grace the medium. Yet, like Jiro, Miyazaki continues to dream: He’s currently working on a new feature, and while the anime industry keeps pushing for cheaper modes of outsourced labor, he’s abiding by his cantankerous, traditionalist methods. He dreams; it’s all he can continue to do. Paul Attard


14. Were one to walk the streets of Taipei, ride its elevated MRT lines, and pass by the imposing structure of the Taipei 101 and the malls that surround it, one would likely find — with just a modicum of effort — the rundown, low-level structures and neglected spaces that comprise Tsai Ming-liang’s 2013 film, Stray Dogs. Revolving around the aching struggle — of a father (Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children — to survive, Stray Dogs observes its trio as they work menial jobs, steal from supermarkets, dig through trash, and wash in public toilets. Since the mid-2000s, Tsai has fundamentally pared down and/or elongated his style, deemphasizing dialogue in order to achieve narratives that strive for a direct experience of time and movement — or, as is more often the case, the abundance of the former and the lack of the latter. While Tsai’s Walker series might be the most extreme examples of this shift in formal approach, Stray Dogs is its ultimate expression in the form of narrative filmmaking. In stillness, and in the protracted nature of shooting rhythms, Tsai explores the full range of human emotion, regularly moving scenes through feelings of joy, despair, anger, and more as they evolve, twist, and unravel within their environments; which, here, are uniformly dilapidated, scenes that compound the overbearing sense of despair and hardship. Shots often last many minutes in length, such as the film’s climactic scene: an unbroken, 14-minute take of characters staring at a wall, which expresses the all too tangible nature of poverty. It is the genius of this shot’s duration which highlights the meaning here: the wall is an impassable, blank reflection of the self under conditions of bare life. The film’s final image, then, underscores the cruelty of dated ideology or migrated capital; the broken concrete, rusted metal, and molded wood one calls home. That there are few words is only right, even if one should have experience of Taipei’s streets, for the film is but a stunning tapestry of diegetic sound and faces reflected in walls that shouldn’t be mirrors. McCracken


13. If Kelly Reichardt isn’t the greatest modern filmmaker of the American West, then certainly she is of the American Northwest. (Paul Thomas Anderson is tough competition, but he’s limited his American films to Southern California.) And with Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt made the greatest Western of the past decade. Three families on the Oregon Trail in 1845 break off from the main group on what they are assured is a shortcut by their guide, the scraggily bearded mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). But as a forecasted two-week journey turns into five, with water growing scarce and no sign of river or mountain in sight, the settlers begin to doubt their leader. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the most forthright of the traveling women, expresses her doubts openly, encouraging the men to follow instead a Native American whom they’ve captured. They can’t speak with him, nor do they even know what tribe he belongs to, but Tetherow has more faith in his willingness to bring them to water than she does in Meek’s, a damning indictment of the white American male. Filming in the narrow, squarish 1.37 ratio — a far cry from the widescreen panoramas normally associated with the Western — Reichart calls attention to both the tunnel vision of the West, as seen through an opening looking out the back of a covered wagon, and as well the blinders imposed by the women’s fashionable bonnets (men wear wide-brimmed hats, but despite this more practical fashion, they can’t see any clearer). The men in Meek’s Cutoff are, pointedly, the less compelling characters: Thomas Gately’s (Paul Dano) gold fever belongs more to the California of There Will Be Blood than to the Oregon trail, while Meek never wavers in his bloody self-confidence, even as he accedes to Tetherow’s wishes. Is he ignorant or just plain evil, our heroine wonders. Like her husband says: we can’t know. Ain’t that America. Sean Gilman


12. Mad Max: Fury Road is, gloriously, what happens when a 70-year-old gets to make the movie he’s been carrying around in his head for decades. It’s an unhinged feat of moviemaking on a massive scale, possessed of a mythological purity that seems to spring, fully-formed, from the mind of its auteur. Everywhere that the viewer looks in this film, they find some familiar fragments of a ruined world: one favorite flourish of Colin Gibson’s ingenious production design is a shoe-store foot measuring device repurposed as the gas pedal on Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) War Rig. George Miller has the vision, but his collaborators make Mad Max: Fury Road truly indelible; his editor, Margaret Sixel, cuts action sequences not along the lines of choreography or coverage but according to the logic of each individual character’s placement, keeping a viewer aware of where the heroes are, what they’re doing, and what the next threat might be down the line as soon as it rears its head. This is an ecstatic vision of what all franchise reboots could be: Use an established character to get the studio backing and the budget to make one’s wildest dreams a reality, then have them step aside to watch as the new hero, one intended to challenge a new audience, ascends. Alex Engquist


11. Thirteen years after Far From HeavenTodd Haynes‘s sumptuous spin on a classic “woman’s picture” — the American director helmed Carol, a gorgeous, same-sex romance fully capable of rivaling that eariter peak. A fifties-set romance between married housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) and timid department store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara), the film is similarly focused on the struggle of women to break free of society’s trappings, and once again sees Haynes channeling Douglas Sirk, albeit in less of a flagrant homage. A relatably somber outlook on a relationship between two people at distinctly different points in their lives, Carol does not merely offer a commentary on being a gay woman in 1950s America, but on what it means to enter into a relationship without knowing what exactly it is that you want from the other person. Carol and Therese are incredibly different from each other in terms of sexual experience, emotional maturity, and self-sufficiency, as well as the varying degrees of opportunity afforded to them by their social standing. In articulating their characters’ differences, Mara and Blanchett turn in career best work: The former telegraphs the repressed urgency of Therese’s sexual awakening, and the turmoil that arrives when romanticism comes crashing down on you, while the latter plays Carol as an evolved woman of leisure, fascinatedly excited to be the woman put on a pedestal, even as she begins to tire of being the older woman in the relationship. This hits home profoundly in a late, palpably tense exchange between the two women, in which Carol asks Therese, “Do you hate me?” reinforcing many of the reasons that their affair may not have a happy ending, even as its open-ended finale is ambiguous in that sense. In this way, Carol is refreshingly honest about the need for self-gratification within relationships; Haynes’s highly-charged film shows us how we gravitate towards what makes us feel alive, whatever the consequences, while thrillingly telling a tale of awkward intimacy and simmering passion. Calum Reed


10. The most basic problem when adapting any novel is the tendency to treat the source material like a sacred tome, the unwillingness to change or alter details that are decidedly unsuited to film. The brilliance of Jonathan Glazer‘s adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 sci-fi novel Under the Skin lies in the fact that he has stripped the story down to its most cinematic elements, steadfastly refusing to follow any sort of narrative trajectory. Glazer communicates through image and sound, forcing the viewer to piece together a story that lends credence to the striking events unfolding on-screen. An alien has made its way to Scotland, taking the form of a beautiful, mysterious seductress who uses her feminine wiles to secure her species’ food source: the human body, specifically men. As Mica Levi’s haunting score percolates in the background — a mixture of high-pitched strings, atonal drones, chiming bells, and the rhythmic beat of a single drum — hallucinatory imagery plays out before us: naked, erect men entering pools of black liquid; the blank-eyed stare of Scarlett Johansson, silently beckoning; human flesh pulverized into mounds of red viscera; the sweep of a metal grate. Scene after hypnotizing scene, the viewer is lead deeper down Glazer’s rabbit hole, a fun house of gruesome and gorgeous horrors. Under the Skin plays out like a viewer’s memory of a nightmare, culminating in what could very well be one of the most striking images of the decade: that of an alien woman writhing in the middle of the woods, peeling off her human facade, black-oil skin underneath, screaming into the void as snow-like ash falls from the sky. Steve Warner


9. With characters glancing at Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on their iPhones and quoting post-war philosophy instead of engaging in concrete dialogue, Goodbye to Language may seem like a collection of Jean-Luc Godard‘s usual, late-period tricks. Then, it happens. The stereoscopic 3D stops registering its painterly depth as one camera departs the other’s axis to follow its subject, causing the image to split with one figure in each eye. In context, it works as a visual metaphor for the rest of the film, encompassing man, woman, violence, nature and history. However, context or no, the shot is the digital age’s equivalent of ducking from the oncoming train in the Lumière’s tent, a technical achievement signaling a terrifying new art. For the rest of the film, we follow two couples and a dog, often in high contrast color-grading and mesmerizing 3D. The sublimity in past literature, philosophy, and film is handed off to iPhones, digital cameras, and 3D in their conversations and in the very images onscreen. Had he never made Breathless, Contempt, or Histoire(s) du cinéma, the revolutionary Goodbye to Language would still make Godard’s name an unequivocal part of film history. Zach Lewis


8. The 2010s got off to an auspicious start in when Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a movie about a man dying of kidney disease who is visited on his idyllic farm by relatives both living and dead, human and ghost. After slowly building an international audience on the festival circuit throughout the 2000s — alongside directors like Jia Zhangke, Hong Sangsoo, Lee Changdong, Tsai Ming-liang, and others loosely and inaccurately grouped under grasping titles like “Asian Minimalism” or “Slow Cinema” — Apichatpong’s Cannes victory seemed to herald a new Golden Age, one during which East Asian cinema might finally take its rightful place in the arthouses of North America alongside French, Italian, and other western countries that had dominated foreign film distribution since the 1950s. That didn’t quite come to pass: while it’s easier to see Asian films in the U.S. now than it ever has been, that’s largely the result of streaming services and international DVD shipping — a few notable titles aside, the theatrical circuit still heavily relies on the remnants of European cinema. Apichatpong’s influence, though, is increasingly, strongly felt at festivals, where a new generation of directors ape his meditative rhythms and baffling paradoxes, though generally without the deadpan wit or formal sophistication (especially when it comes to sound). Uncle Boonmee remains a stunning example of Joe’s inimitability; its simple enough premise builds an entire spiritual ecosystem out of the patient accumulation of bizarre, often hilarious details. Boonmee’s transition from life to death is a gradual and porous one, the jungle around him alive with spirits; loved ones who are now dead; or ghosts who have joined nature (apparently via marrying animal spirits). In this borderland, the boundaries between past and present, living and dead, natural and human breakdown completely — a dead wife nurses her sick husband, a prodigal son returns as a red-eyed Wookiee, a princess has sex with a catfish. After accompanying Boonmee on his journey through and into the earth, his (living) relatives return to the city, irrevocably changed: one has even become a monk, though somewhat half-heartedly. But while they sit on the bed watching the local news, their spirits still wander off. In search of food, they find music. Sean Gilman


Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a young call girl and university student in modern Tokyo who hesitantly befriends an elderly male client.

7. With its seemingly generic narrative of metropolitan ennui and interpersonal catharsis, nonchalant images, and suave, jazz-bar ambiance, Abbas Kiarostami‘s Like Someone in Love at first seems like an intentional softball after the cascading layers of intellectual rigor that comprised his previous film, Certified Copy. As is typical of the late director, however, initial expectations regarding tone, shape, and general aim are derailed — this time, around a third of the way through. Like Someone in Love never stretches beyond its placid but subtly disorienting formalism, but its narrative evolves constantly: motivations and demeanors shift, dramatically, across the space of a single cut, and casual misunderstandings jolt characters in unexpected directions. With an uncanny ease of touch, Kiarostami unfolds a slow-burning horror film about the conscious role-playing and self-deception that pollute the texture of everyday life. Carson Lund


6. The contrast-heavy black-and-white of the film’s economical prologue opens The Assassin on two donkeys tied to a tree, a slow pan revealing their masters looking off in the opposite direction. The image calls attention to the subservient first, and the ambivalence of the powerful second, a historical consideration that transcends period trappings, much like the etymological significance of the two jade amulets that The Assassin‘s two leads possess. Most impressively, director Hou Hsiao-hsien and cinematographer Mark Lee Pingbing use the expansive canvas of the film’s mise-en-scene to externalize the philosophy of its characters: the billowing fog and jutting landscapes that frame a duplicitous teacher, the low rumble of percussion that fills an Imperial court’s austere crimson and gold halls, and most important, the tranquil stillness and soft-focus of the rural villages, striving to exist outside all of the film’s politically-charged conflict. Mac


5. Before his untimely death, in 2016, Abbas Kiarostami spent the 2000s in a flurry of experimental activity, producing shorts, gallery installations, essayistic documentaries and at least two full-fledged masterpieces, 2008’s Shirin and 2010’s Certified Copy. Kiarostami had long blurred the lines between fact and fiction, freely mixing narrative and documentary modes in an ongoing effort to deconstruct what might lazily be labelled ‘social-realism’. Not for nothing was InRO’s 2011 retrospective on the director dubbed “The Self-Reflexive Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami.” And even more so than, say, Close-Up or A Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy is perhaps the most engaging (and perplexing) of these Borges-esque narrative curlicues. Shot on location in Tuscany, starring a British man (William Shimell) and a bona-fide French movie star (Juliette Binoche), with dialogue spoken in English, French, and Italian, Certified Copy concerns itself with all manner of gentle deception, forcing us to confront what it even means to watch, and to follow along with, a traditional narrative feature. Shimell and Binoche meet-cute at a lecture the former’s character is giving and roam the city streets, getting to know each other while discussing the nature of authenticity in the arts and the veracity of copies. About halfway through Certified Copy, the duo slips into the cadences of an old married couple, a bizarre disruption that reconfigures the narrative to that point. It’s not a ‘twist’; it’s not important whether they are actually a couple playing some kind of a game or if they are in fact strangers who have just met. The important thing is the rupture itself, the idea that both things are true simultaneously. It’s an epistemological interrogation of sorts, mixing and matching the building blocks of narrative into a new, discursive mode. Miraculously, the film remains playful and engaging throughout, mostly due to a career best turn from Binoche. As former InRO writer Calum Marsh noted, “[Certified Copy] is, quite masterfully, about what it means for us to watch, read, and compare. It’s about the central assumption of the whole critical enterprise, about what it means for us to interpret, or for a film to mean.” It’s a small, lovely film, and as with most of Kiarostami’s best films, its ending isn’t a conclusion so much as an invitation, a topic for further discussion. Daniel Gorman


4. The Master is harbors a real, deep, critical curiosity about masculinity. Alluring acceptance comes from a charming and chicanerous writer/philosopher/cult leader who beckons with a fraudulent eloquence, who offers ambiguous answers to unanswerable questions, and in whom a broken man (all wiry limbs and with a face in perpetual motion, eyes aglint with trauma and mouth twisting as words ooze out) finds something resembling love. Joaquin Phoenix‘s troubled veteran is mercurial, dangerous, a man of violence. Violence becomes a means of communication for a man who fucks a woman sculpted of sand and sees cocks in patterns of ink. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays exudes an air of authority, seemingly sapiential when his daunting character delivers knavish lessons, captivating through his theatrical performance. Notice how, when Freddie meets Dodd, the latter’s red robe partially obfuscates the corner of the frame, as if he’s seeping into Freddie’s shot. The formal assiduousness/obsessiveness of Paul Thomas Anderson — in composition, movement, framing, color coordination, focus. The Master possesses the astuteness of Richard Yates and the trenchant humor of Norman Rockwell and the rigor of Stanley Kubrick and the ambition of Francis Ford Coppola. A beautiful amalgamation of American cinema. Greg Cwik


3. Were it not for critic Jaime Christley’s grassroots campaign to petition Fox Searchlight to disseminate Margaret among critics’ organizations and awards bodies for year-end voting in 2011, it’s possible that Kenneth Lonergan’s sprawling, monumental masterpiece might have vanished from the commentariat consciousness as thoroughly as its distributor seemed to want it to, when it all but buried its theatrical release. But as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody pointed out, Margaret was bound to enter the canon on the strength of its merits, and even if it was puzzlingly overlooked upon release, it will eventually “leave historians to ponder and rue its lack of recognition in its own day.” Of course, Lonergan’s dense, theatrical dialogue and difficult and provocative approach to storytelling did not exactly make Margaret accessible, particularly in the bowdlerized form it was hacked into by a studio eager to smooth away some rough edges. But the extended cut revealed the astonishing complexity of Lonergan’s original design, which detailed the aftermath of a young girl’s complicity in a deadly traffic accident from the vantage of responsibility, blame, and (especially) guilt — no element of which is satisfactorily explained away in accordance with convention, and no question about which is finally resolved. With brutal honesty and bold conviction, Margaret confronts the tough center of an ethical quandary, and what’s exposed is meant to make us feel uncomfortable from every angle. Calum Marsh


2. Romantic relationships have often existed on the periphery of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films — when they aren’t acting as outright structuring absences. Of Anderson’s many male protagonists, only Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice seems propelled by something other than just naked greed, lust, or ambition; and that film’s sweet, wistful coda crystallized the benign yearning that grounded Doc’s persona. With Phantom Thread, Anderson centers a story around romance — and, particularly, around the work involved in sustaining a loving relationship over the long term — without abandoning the more selfish, abstract qualities that have long plagued his heroes’ thirsts for transcendence. The hybrid of competing instincts — towards the self and towards the companion; towards wealth and power; and towards domestic bliss — make for Anderson’s richest and thorniest character study, one set in a lavish, insular world of high fashion that’s no less a battleground than Freddie Quell’s alien homefront or Daniel Plainview’s oil field. Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis, photographed in the soothing glow of a midcentury London mansion, give performances steeped in decorum that nonetheless seethe with rage, passion, and libido. The same might be said for Anderson’s consummate formal control, which passes off incredibly tricky sewing room sequences, interjections of dream logic, and ornamental flourishes like slow dissolves and artificial snowfall, with the casualness of a veteran. Carson Lund


1. The Tree of Life arrived a mere five months into the decade’s second year — although of course Terrence Malick’s magnum opus had been percolating in the cinephile consciousness for some time before that. The ways in which this life’s work can be thought about are many and varied, from the theological and philosophical to the filmographic and cinematographic. And each is valid. Due to its 1950s Texas setting, The Tree of Life and its characters make pleas to the Christian God and the attendant concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ that are expressed through that religion. But Malick’s affinity for the Heideggerian ontology of Dasein adds its own layer of intelligibility to the anguished appeals of the film’s protagonists — even as the famed creation sequence here suggests a speculative philosophic contiguity and oneness of being. Beyond these matters, the place that The Tree of Life occupies within Malick’s filmography — both a break from, and a culmination of, the director’s established tendencies — is worthy of its own moment of reflection. The Tree of Life adopts narratological and visual strategies that date back to 1973’s Badlands and 1998’s The Thin Red Line, in terms of voiceover and editing rhythms, but elevate these in relation to a novel, naturalistic, and even visually cubist sensibility. As such, given The Tree of Life’s immense polyphonic and multivalent nature, it is perhaps necessary to assume an approach that’s suggested by something as fundamental as the film’s name: The Tree of Life is an overt work of cultivation and maintenance that is to be revered less for the answers it provides in relation to the concepts it’s referencing and much more for its willingness to curate time, place, history, text, thought, and memory into a tapestry of reflection and interrogation that, however parochial, dives into and becomes worthy of its place amongst the roots of the universe. 

“Where were you…?” — this question is asked both in the film’s opening text and by Jessica Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien. The object of the question is, of course, the Christian God worshipped by the film’s principles, yet it would be foolish to project upon Malick agreement with any particular set of beliefs. A worldview and milieu are adopted to test and expand their parameters, to find where each fails, and to push them further, as each grows on account of these limitations. In this way, Malick explores humanity’s deepest affects through acute attention to the thoughts that are produced on account of the place one occupies within the universe — and this method is, first and foremost, horticultural. The primary figure in The Tree of Life’s emotional study is the adult iteration of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), as he opens the film struggling with a sense of dissociation and unease that manifests in both his waking and sleeping hours; all the while recalling memories of his childhood and the role his parents represent (i.e., the aforementioned ‘nature’ and ‘grace’) with regard to a stance toward life that he has yet to resolve. In addition, the specter of a brother, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) — who died sometime during Jack’s younger years — besets his visions and memories, as he seemingly wrestles with his role in shaping his brother’s psychology and experience. As The Tree of Life reaches its conclusion, Jack experiences an epiphany through which he comes to embrace the totality of his life (his formation of and by others), and reconciles with the grand sweep of nature, tripped by a glance at the vast expanse of cloud-hewed sky reflected in the windows of his place of work. 

In terms of form and technique, The Tree of Life is surprisingly subtle in the way it achieves its aims, growing its botanical view of life by way of a mosaic of signs, tones, and feelings, as well as lustrous, naturally lit and captured impressionistic images that unpack the dimensions of its characters’ existence as each section of this epic unfolds. The images constructed are only deepened in their significance and deftness through the introspective, non-linear movement between thoughts, prayers, and memories, in which not just one’s own reflections reverberate in the mind but those of one’s family and milieu; furnishing and defining the cathedral of the soul as it attempts to situate itself in the expansive length, breadth, and depth of time. In this sense, The Tree of Life is most obviously related to Maclick’s 2005 film The New World, though it intensifies the philosophy that informed that work, broadening its application from that of defining the meaning of a place to the mind and world as each are experienced in time. This style and approach to filmmaking would, perhaps, be heightened, clarified, even improved upon (depending on who you ask) over the course of the decade, in subsequent Malick films like Knight of Cups. And yet, The Tree of Life must nevertheless be hailed for initiating this new phase of Malick’s career, particularly in relation to performance (the young cast is remarkable, particularly Hunter McCracken in the role of young Jack O’Brien), and how the acting serves the horticultural reading. The actors cultivate the film, just as they are cultivated by it. 

Complicating matters further: The Tree of Life is actually two in nature, its horticulture is doubled, or perhaps representative of two trees — one of life, another of the knowledge of good and evil. An extended edition has also been released, providing 50 minutes of never before seen footage, and furnishing the film with material that expands the turmoil of the adult Jack, broadening his experience to include a relationship with his wife and family, as well as acts of infidelity; alongside developing the struggle of his younger self in understanding the rights and wrongs of his behavior. This expansion connects The Tree of Life explicitly to Malick’s later works, in terms of content — each of which have touched openly on questions of fidelity, disaffection, and loss. But perhaps more profoundly, the added footage links the film to the hyper-kinetic editing and free associative rhythms of Knight of Cups or Song to Song (whether the film was reappropriated under the later terms or demonstrated a prior anticipation of what would come is unclear). This, in turn, only serves to make The Tree of Life more intensely elusive and strange, mirroring the crisis that assails its protagonist and the internal conflict which produces the knowledge that frees him. Whichever version of the film one chooses to watch — or to view as the superior cut — in each, Malick takes up the life of a few as his object of reflection and observes it all in relation to the grand scope and movement of the universe. It’s a vision that cultivates a place for human existence and for human’s comprehension of good and ill, within the context of the full spectrum of being, and one that has remained unrivalled over the course of the decade — even the century — thus far. The Tree of Life stands, resolutely and appropriately, as Malick’s greatest achievement and as the emblematic work of a true visionary. McCracken

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