by InRO Staff Feature Articles Film Year in Review

Top 100 Films of the Decade: 100-76

January 27, 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 : 75-51 |

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

| Top 100 Films of the Decade : 25-1 |

 

100. Though far from perfect — its prolonged prologue is mired in a patchily developed dystopian Earth story and dogged by maudlin speeches on American resilience — Christopher Nolan‘s nevertheless glorious space epic is appealing in part for its mistakes, born of a wild abandon that pushes the director through risky turn after totally ill-advised swerve and that challenges the very resolve and imagination of its audience just as it does that of Matthew McConaughey’s star-struck explorer. A touch of pseudoscience here, a smattering of Neil deGrasse Tyson-approved stuff there, a head-scratching cameo to shake up a stagnating mid-section — Interstellar is a magnificently combustible thing, especially as the bulging iMAX experience for which it was intended. It’s also a film that’s classically scaled in its avoidance of 3D, and in its vaguely Spielbergian absent-father narrative. Most importantly, Nolan so thoroughly commits to his obsessive cerebral gymnastics, and his striving toward transcendence, that he somehow achieves a winning earnestness, the likes of which his film’s barely ever glimpse. As a visual spectacle, Interstellar earns its real estate in the sci-fi pantheon, with bravura CGI and practical-effects set-pieces. But at its core, Interstellar is Nolan’s pathological pursuit of some human depth and feeling buried within his ambitious wankery. In McConaughey’s everyman performance, and in his own vision’s absurd density, he finds it. Mac


99. A frontrunner for the decade’s finest American debut feature, John Magary’s The Mend is a roving, restless thing; an early sequence sees Mat (Josh Lucas) being thrown out of his apartment by his girlfriend, Andrea (Lucy Owen), and proceeds in a flurry of disorienting, unexpected cuts — vigorous aesthetic choices that transform this inciting story beat into something unfamiliar and unresolved. And Magary’s ambition and talent only continue to astound when Mat then crashes a house party hosted by his brother, Alan (Stephen Plunkett), and his girlfriend, Farrah (Mickey Sumner). The extended, tour de force passage that follows showcases this director’s democratic approach to characterization, which ensures that, for a while, no character stays on the periphery. A familiar knock on The Mend is that it borrows too liberally from the stylistic menagerie of Arnaud Desplechin, as seen in Magary’s anachronistic use of iris shots and his predilection for wending story digressions. But that description doesn’t account for the film’s very particular evocation of a fragile bohemia, which is peppered with compelling, casually mysterious episodes: random power outages, a TV left on a street, the recurring sounds of a helicopter flying overhead. As The Mend unfolds, there’s a real sense that Magary’s view of New York as an expansive terrain of possibility feeds into a contempt for the predominantly hermetic, self-satisfied output of the American independent scene. At no point is this clearer than when an intoxicated Mat and Alan terrorize a hapless production assistant during a nighttime shoot at a park, which is revealed to be the source of the apparently artificial fog that they just walked through. Its title notwithstanding, The Mend offers no concrete resolutions. Magary instead chooses to dissipate the narrative into a kind of “strange air,” replacing closure with thrilling possibility. Lawrence Garcia


98. Ever one to confound expectations, Jia Zhangke followed his harrowing return to fiction filmmaking — the 2013 modern-day wuxia A Touch of Sin — with an epic melodrama about family that takes place in three time periods that are each delineated by different aspect ratios; a film that, in the end, turns out to be structured around the seemingly arbitrary fact that Jia’s wife’s first name (Tao; 涛) means “waves,” and the Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 song “Go West” begins with the sound of crashing waves. Mountains May Depart opens with PSB’s pulsing anthem in a sequence where it’s paired with an instantly iconic camera push-in on Tao (Zhao Tao) as she leads a community troupe dance rehearsal in preparation for Chinese New Year. Among the dancers are two men who will vie for Tao’s affections: a poor miner, Liangzi (Liang Jingdong), and an ambitious, less than scrupulous businessman, Jingsheng (Jiang Yi). Tao ultimately chooses the way of capital; in the second chapter, though, she is alone, her husband having moved to the city with their son. Tao is visited briefly by her child, and later by Liangzi, who now suffers from lung disease. The third chapter hurtles heedlessly into the future, with the now-grown son living in Australia with his exiled father (a corruption crackdown left them unable to return home). The son begins a romance with his Chinese teacher (Sylvia Chang), a wrong-headed Oedipal relationship obvious to everyone but the couple themselves. Looking for his mother in the Chinese language, or in the body of an older woman, proves futile, but he does find her in music: First in the Sally Yeh song that the two shared when he was a child, then in the sound of the waves — which transport us back to an aged Tao in China, dancing alone to “Go West” in her head. Sean Gilman


97. After a nine-year absence from filmmaking, writer/director/editor/actor Shane Carruth finally re-emerged in 2013 with his second feature, the delicately inscrutable Upstream Color. It should surprise no one that the man behind Primer — the most twisted-pretzel-logic time travel movie of all time — would eschew traditional narrative structure. But what is surprising is just how beautiful Carruth’s film is. Amy Seimetz is a revelation as a woman, Kris, who finds herself the victim of a horrific, and very literal, identity theft. After being drugged with a parasite, left penniless, and emotionally shattered, Kris gradually reawakens to the world around he; her subsequent relationship, with love interest Jeff (Carruth himself) — a fellow victim who’s just barely begun to piece his life back together — forms Upstream Color’s backbone. Carruth’s is a heady sci-fi premise for sure, but the filmmaker keeps things purposefully vague and elliptical, the better to reflect his characters’ unstable psyches. The film is also shot with lovely, wistful camerawork, a shallow depth of field that abstracts as much as it reveals. Ultimately, Upstream Color is about connections, not only between the two characters but their connection to nature, which is here defined as alternately cruel and indifferent; but ultimately sublime. Daniel Gorman


96. If Paul Schrader’s deeply underrated The Canyons is about characters gaining agency by projecting a cinema ontology onto the formations of their own narratives, and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is about the autonomous constructions of the characters’ exploits via the technologies they utilize through their interactions with various forms of social media, the agency that’s achieved in Brian De Palma’s Passion — the third film in this unofficial trilogy of 2013 movies chronicling an accelerationist form of capitalism — is routed to the aesthetic capacities of filmmaking technologies themselves. In that sense, Passion is the definitive ‘post-meta’ film: it isn’t interested in what’s typically considered to be “meta,” neither emphasizing the characters’ diegetic sense of self-awareness, nor the director’s acknowledgment of his own manipulating presence. Instead, mechanisms of control, of voyeurism, are represented through the presence of the essentially autonomous technologies that we let watch us; through smartphones sticking out of the ass pocket of a pair of jeans, or Skype conversations rendered on screens about screens. The suggestion of De Palma’s film is as chilling as it is true: machines themselves can make the movies now, they can be real auteurs; in fact, every movie made today is “meta,” because every one of us is being surveilled. De Palma takes the artifice of his classic thrillers and spit-shines it for our terrifyingly technology-saturated world. Mac


95. Lav Diaz has developed a reputation over the last decade for his excavations of the Filipino past and considerations of its future. Films such as A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, From What Is Before, and Season of the Devil each, in their own way, opened up eras of colonialism and fascism in the Philippines. Norte, the End of History takes cues from Dostoyevsky generally, and Crime and Punishment specifically, progressing from a conversation between a law student, Fabian (Sid Lucero), and his professors that’s focussed on the moral state of the nation and the rights and wrongs of authoritarianism and absolutism in relation to a particularist, jurisprudential philosophy of governance. As the film’s primary force of agency, Fabian is the site of the tension in values, the question of whether or not his vision of an ethical way forward can be enacted. He chooses to murder a woman who he is in debt to and he succeeds; he then watches from afar as a poorer man, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), takes the fall for the crime that he’s committed. Out of all this, Diaz’s core question surfaces: How is sanity possible when the ability, and the desire, to do what one wills encounters its own fallout in the lives of those whom it affects? It’s in putting this empathy in the mind of a figure who represents the key violent trends in Filipino history that Diaz reckons with the madness and solitariness of a society that results when one is drawn to a notion of power and moral certainty that will go to any length to impress itself on the world. While perhaps not as strong as other Diaz films (many of which have failed, as yet, to secure a U.S. release), Norte serves as a worthy representative due to its sumptuous widescreen color cinematography, which deviates wildly from the director’s preferred black and white. The film also serves as a fitting introduction to the director’s political concerns regarding his nation’s identity and the principles that dominate it. Those only intensify, by the way, in the films where Diaz descends into the past that made his nation’s present possible, and the future that is emerging out of its contemporary paroxysm. Matthew McCracken


94. A Hong Kong movie star, Michael Liu (Louis Koo), is left at the altar by Ding Yuanyuan (Gao Yuanyuan), his longtime screen partner. Michael, devastated and driven into hiding, drinks his way to the top of the world, somewhere high in the mountains of China in a place called “Shangri-La” (the Orientalist no-place from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon). Once there, Michael is reluctantly nursed back to sobriety by Sue (Sammi Cheng), a hotelier whose husband disappeared seven years ago, venturing into the surrounding woods to rescue a child who had ran off. Michael’s response to loss is alcohol: the obliteration of consciousness. Sue’s is stasis: She keeps everything exactly the way it was when her husband was still there, machines, decor, liquor, everything. Michael eventually learns the story of Sue’s husband’s disappearance; trying to help her find catharsis, he decides to make a movie about it, which is basically the same as the movie that we’re watching (with different actors in certain roles). However, crucially, Michael’s film changes the ending: as Sue watches the movie, almost running out of the theatre as the climax comes and the husband is about to die, she’s drawn back in, at the last minute, to see her husband saved on screen. Sue watches, in tears, as the movie reunites her with her husband; and so, only through cinema is Sue finally able to break out of her self-imposed stasis, and achieve some closure. Romancing in Thin Air is Johnnie To’s ultimate statement on the power of movies; it cycles through references to much of To’s previous work, from the motorcycle of A Moment of Romance, to the mountain location of Love for All Seasons, to the spatial dance of people destined to meet occupying the same frame yet not seeing each other from Turn Left, Turn Right. Grand gestures abound in To’s romances: a race toward a boat in Needing You…, or up a skyscraper, in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2. In Romancing in Thin Air, the gesture is the movie itself, and we get to share in it right along with its heroine. Gilman


93. The psychology of Don Diego de Zama, an embittered, low-ranking government official languishing in a 17th century Spanish colonial purgatory, unravels faster than his foppish wig in Lucretia Martel’s sharply satirical film. At some point in the midst of waiting to be transferred away from his existential nightmare, Zama comes to recognize the absurdity of colonialism: The occupiers are plagued by imaginary villains pursuing worthless treasure, and trapped in convoluted webs of their own spinning. Not unlike Luis Buñuel’s savage, satirical masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, the characters of Zama are seen as either unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge any culpability, and their brooding ennui and delusions of power keep them trapped in their own personal hells. Just as she did with her last film, The Headless Woman, Martel brilliantly creates a peculiar sense of alienation and dread, deploying long takes and descending tones on the soundtrack as Zama loses his marbles. And yet what’s often been overlooked by critics is just how funny Zama is. Don Diego isn’t a pitiable figure; he’s a man of much-deserved ridicule, a living representation of bureaucratic inanity that perfectly encapsulates colonialism’s insidious folly. But his Sisyphean quest to escape a Kafka-esque limbo of middle management becomes the film’s most hilarious running joke, brought to life through gentle surrealism and trenchant social critique. There could scarcely be a better encapsulation of our global political moment; Zama is dogma without reason, confidence without the proper facts to back those feelings up, power without a sense of responsibility, and absurdity without self-awareness, as set in a world run by self-absorbed clowns and petty tyrants. It’s one of the 2010s most devastating satires. Matthew Lucas


92. There are no more lovers left alive,” Neil Tennant sang nearly two decades before the release of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. But that doesn’t matter. In fact, who even cares? It was just some mindless pop song that time forgot, just like any other piece of discarded culture. Originality is no longer valued; the true talents have left us years ago, and authenticity is dead. Jarmusch gets all of this: his two cantankerous leads practically revel in their disdain for contemporary civilization, modernity, and anything else the mindless “zombies” of the world consume blindly. Only Lovers Left Alive builds as a chamber piece chronicling the slow, eventual demise of culture; it’s a cycle of death and rebirth, one that both Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) have experienced for centuries. Yet, the pair doesn’t seem too far removed from Down by Law’s trio of bandit misfits, or even Mystery Train’s despondent international couple — which is to suggest that even though he’s dealing with creatures of folklore, Jarmusch is still just as interested in documenting the mundanity of the human condition and our inability to change the world around us. The only salvation our long-dead companions have? Give in to cravings, capitulate into an ecstasy of fervent depravity; and just like that, they begin anew. Paul Attard


91. While conducting research in Manhattan’s Diamond District for what would eventually become Uncut Gems, filmmaker Josh Safdie spotted 19-year-old Arielle Holmes, a homeless heroin addict as yet entirely unknown to him. He approached her, and the chance encounter eventually resulted in Holmes writing a memoir about her drug habit and dysfunctional relationship with a fellow addict named Ilya. It is this writing, titled Mad Love in New York City, that forms the basis of Josh and Benny Safdie’s electrifying 2014 feature Heaven Knows What, which is anchored by Holmes’s live-wire performance as Harley, her on-screen alter-ego. With the subsequent premieres of Good Time and the aforementioned Adam Sandler vehicle, which each expanded the Safdies’ cinematic practice in both production scale and audience reach, it’s clear that the brothers are concerned, foremost, with the art of the hustle. In the film, Harley is a magnetic mess of nervous energy, driven equally by her addiction and her selfless, self-destructive love for Ilya. The human tendency to manipulate others for personal gain, whether unwittingly or not, forms a throughline in the film — and Holmes’ presence brings in a whole other skein of off-screen relationships, dependencies, and exploitative possibilities. None of these extra-textual details, though, are strictly necessary to engage with this jagged film, which is discomfiting in the extreme, moving between intense, nerve-jangling sensation — Holmes’ expressive, sleepy look and desperate energy; the film’s pulsing, textured electronic soundtrack — and snatches of rare quietude. In exploring Holmes’ milieu, the Safdies alternate between long-lens shots that unfold as if from a bystander’s point-of-view, and close-ups of nigh-unbearable intensity. Aesthetic distance and personal immediacy, straightforward sincerity and grungy grift: all become twined together over the course of the film until they become indistinguishable. In the end, is there a difference? As the title suggests, only god knows. Garcia


90. It’s not a new thing for Adam Curtis to suggest that society as a whole lacks a compelling guiding vision of the future. But what Curtis’s 2016 feature, Hypernormalisation, suggests is that we’ve all willingly acquiesced to that lack of vision, if only because the alternative — actual struggle and change — is somehow more terrifying than a world manufactured by corporations and kept stable by politicians, who are both only interested in maintaining that status quo. Using his diabolically engrossing archival footage and media collage tactics, Curtis makes connections between stuff like fake UFO sightings in the 1960s, real estate speculation, suicide bombers, and LSD — and of course it all leads to Brexit and Trump and climate change, the final symptoms of a system created entirely to perpetuate itself by making total psychic paralysis our default state as individuals. Matt Lynch


89. With 45 Years, Andrew Haigh builds on the conceptual scaffolding of his breakout film, 2010’s Weekend. Where that earlier film explores the fervor and tangible finity of a three-day tryst, and its innate, expansive potential, 45 Years inhabits an obverse spectral position, that of a titular wedding anniversary, with the implicit suggestion of such an achievement framing audience expectations. Both films tackle the emotional claustrophobia of their respective settings; and in the latter, the disruption of decades-long stability gives way to devastation. The couple — Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) — are, as introduced, a collective identity. But as 45 Years progresses, their definition and history become unmade, their mutual existence becomes a haunting, and their individual selves begin to reform as polarities. The pair grapple with this contrariety across a week’s time, and Haigh smartly focuses on the particulars of the change taking place between them: the slow disintegration of Geoff’s cool insouciance as pitted against Kate’s furling agitation, which girds the film’s revelations. 45 Years’ power, then, lies in its performances, a frequently over-esteemed and distractible component of cinema, but one which here justifies and empowers the work with its mechanistic force. Despite the film’s potential for melodramatic flourish, Haigh remains committed to a studied subtlety, with Rampling and Courtenay doing most of the heavy lifting during transitional moments, absent of or beneath dialogue, expressive physical performance communicating the deep upset of their shared emotional and psychological equilibrium. To that end, Haigh tunes his visual language to a certain prosaicism, only disrupting its understated rhythms with a few key images of apocalyptic power, none more so than 45 Years’ final scene: Set to the deceptively charming tempo of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Kate and Geoff begin their celebratory anniversary dance, the couple made the center of a circle of friends, tuxedo and dress blue-hued in light, the camera incrementally pushing in across the song’s entire three minutes. Geoff maintains a tenor of merriment and jaunt throughout, singing along, his body buoyant. Kate teeters precariously on the edge. Her pursed smile begins to flag, and as the camera catches her gaze after each revolution, it becomes increasingly, disarmingly unmoored. As the tune and film mutually crescendo into tragedy, the couple are joined on the dance floor by their celebrants. Kate’s fingers falter in their grasp on Geoff, seek purchase on his sleeve, before she ferociously pulls her hand back to herself, a shattering reclamation set to the din of applause and cheers. Luke Gorham


88. It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Tony Scott’s films on mainstream of American cinema during his monumentally successful career. The fecundity of his style was paramount in the creation of a new popular cinema, developing throughout the late 1980s and ’90s, to impress upon the Hollywood mode of production a type of musicality and speed rarely seen in blockbusters released prior to his formative work. By the time of his untimely passing in 2010, Scott had directed 16 feature films, with a variety of studios, for a cumulative worldwide box office of over two billion dollars. Although his work typically saw little love from critics contemporaneously, the vibrant effect that his style has had on the filmmakers who arrived after him attests to a director with real personal vision. Unstoppable, Scott’s final film, marks the end of a series of collaborations with the estimable actor Denzel Washington. The plot, loosely based on a true event, centers around the actions of two trainyard workers who defy orders in order to avert the looming destruction of a runaway train. Unstoppable is intimately connected to Scott’s previous film, his Taking of Pelham 123 remake, in the sense that the central events draw the interlocking workings of a city to a halt, while Scott explores the ripples this causes with his hyperactive camera and editing. Yet, this film is much more grounded than Scott’s previous one: The expository information surrounding Washington’s and Pine’s respective characters, divulged through conversations, ultimately leads to the question of human motivation, which is answered here by the experience and responsibility of the workingman — Scott’s final hero. This, coupled with the more sensational aspects of Unstoppable (constant cutting to media coverage, the track-level shots, the train’s depiction as a kind of monster – moaning and groaning like a mechanical whale), lend a real visual-aural weight that far outclass Pelham’s histrionics. A beautiful film about knowledge and experience passed from one generation to the next. Sam Thomas-Redfern


87. In Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, Jason Schwartzman delivers an onslaught of debasement and ridicule to nearly everyone he encounters, sometimes merely for sport while other times in defense of a deeply fragile ego evident to all but himself. The wonder of the film, then, is that its superficial charms (if you find bitter, narcissistic rants charming, that is) are only a teaser to the incisive psychological scrutiny carefully hidden beneath the sheen of serio-absurdist banter. ARP digs into the nature of art and its reflection on the artist — in the process drawing out career-best performances from Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce, and especially Elisabeth Moss — by mounting his best approximation of a Philip Roth narrative and starring a Philip Roth analog. A director of broad inspiration, with an oeuvre of eclectic influence across myriad artistic forms, this is perhaps Perry’s bluntest creation. But while this may be a studied treatment of Roth-ism, it’s another literary persona that comes most forcefully to mind — Ignatius J. Reilly, the bumbling, self-important center of John Kennedy Toole’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces. Perry continues the tradition of mining acutely personal, recognizable truths from the laughable pretense of self-proclaimed genius, and his film cuts deepest when it exposes, through a necessarily distorted lens, the Philip in all of us. Gorham


86. Halfway though No Home Movie, Chantal Akerman points her handheld camera out the window of a moving car, capturing expanses of desert. The arid landscape is accompanied by the sound of wind rippling. Akerman tells her octogenarian mother — multiple times but generally over Skype while traveling further from her house in Brussels — that she’s trying to show that there’s no distance between people. Before the desert images, Akerman and her mom, an Auschwitz survivor, lightly recount moments of shared history over computer calls or in-person meals; after, mom’s sickness is ever-present. She coughs, she drifts off while spoken to, she struggles to remember what she did the day before. In one of the film’s heaviest scenes, Akerman lays her camera on a table, sits out of the frame and — as if she’s not there — her mother mournfully tells a nurse that her daughter never talks about her adventures or anything that she wants to hear about. Death pervades this film. Akerman’s mother died shortly before No Home Movie’s release; Akerman herself died shortly after that. “We’re even closer than before…And where is Chantal?” A daring formal experiment conducted with a huge heart, No Home Movie is a tale of maternal love, as well an autobiography and a double ghost story by one of the most consequential of filmmakers. Tanner Stechnij 


85. A cross between Luis Buñuel, Michael Haneke, and Monty Python, Dogtooth announced a major new director. And the past ten years have indeed seen Yorgos Lanthimos steadily progress towards something like mainstream legitimacy, working with increasingly big stars, and even directing the recent  awards season darling The Favourite. Lanthimos takes cringe comedy to its ne plus ultra, creating a kind of anti-humanist pseudo-reality where nothing is as it seems. A Greek family lives in isolation, inside a large compound, where the teenaged children have been raised with a distorted version of reality (call it post-truth or alternative facts) and don’t believe there is a world outside their walls. In retrospect, Lanthimos hasn’t proven to be a particularly political filmmaker, but the implications here in his first major film has clear subtext: an authoritarian father figure perpetuates his own patriarchal power by subjecting his children to blatant mis-education, manipulating the basis of language itself to confuse and disempower. He is a tyrant, of course, and there are clear parallels to cultural isolationism. But there’s also a lot of funny stuff here, as Lanthimos revels in the weird verbal contortions that accompany making up fake words and phrases, the innate strangeness of his scenario (one favorite bit: the father convincing his children that house cats are the deadliest creatures on Earth). A dark undercurrent of repressed sex and violence steadily bubbles up to the surface throughout Dogtooth’s two-hour run time, a bizarre and disturbing accumulation of quotidian details that eventually explode. And while there’s certainly a case to be made that the film has something to do with Greece’s decade of mismanagement at the hands of the IMF, including a social austerity program that led to political upheaval at the highest levels and years of social protest, whether you choose to take Dogtooth as a fanciful parable or as a social commentary, it’s undoubtedly one of the strangest, most singular creations of the 2010s. Gorman


84. On its surface, Her follows a familiar formula of romance, a study of the interwoven nature of joy and pain and the grief that saturates a relationship when one half of a couple outgrows the other. And while the novelty of re-framing such a love story as one between a man and an operating system provides a conceit primed for any thematic coupling of absurdism/existentialism/identity, Spike Jonze is up to something sneakier. In documenting the arguably natural evolution of our relationship with technology, and the varying impact that suggests on our human psyches, Jonze crafts something improbably affecting and thought-provoking, without shading it with the self-conscious stylings of a less confident auteur. Jonze handles his futuristic bent with a careful calm, refusing to overemphasize the science-fiction elements or become strident with the central allegory — Her feels something like Philip K. Dick as understood through a filter of melancholy. Instead, the filmmaker allows his story and characters to develop organically, imbuing Her with a lived-in sense of familiarity that lets the realities of this world sink into our skin — until all that remains is the primal, profound humanity left to roil in its wake. Gorham


83. Johnnie To’s constant stream of films over the last decade has often reworked commercial modes that he’s utilized before: Romancing in Thin Air heightens the emotional stakes of a To melodrama by filtering it through the lens of both its lovers’ unwitting and intentional role-play; Drug War digs into the dimensions and the interchangeability of the roles that define the power-struggle between cops and crooks; and Blind Detective uses its central character’s empathetic investigative technique to galvanize its broad slapstick. These are all such dynamic, exciting, original works that it almost came as a surprise when To followed them up with a sequel. Of course, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 is no mere rehash of its playful predecessor. The cute, silent-film theatrics of the first film, which saw office workers pantomiming through adjacent windows, are replaced with a less passive agent here: the erratic maneuvering of expensive cars, and the role that these vehicles frequently play in the film’s most consequential romantic entanglements. It’s when they’re behind the wheel that this film’s entangled lovers are spotted/spot each other, and in increasingly compromising, convoluted, or just plain misinterpreted acts of infidelity — sometimes, the cars even crash into each other, threatening some kind of Hong Kong screwball riff on David Cronenberg. The abrasiveness reaches its apex during a scene when Louis Koo’s character abruptly breaks an apartment’s glass window — shattering the very thing that caused so much misery in the first Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. A cathartic release that sees To take aim at the deluded cultural expectations so anathema to true romance. Mac


82. In order to recreate the Los Angeles of 1969, Quentin Tarantino and his production crew worked with city planners and various business owners over the course of many months, effectively turning back the clock on the city and searching for an ‘original’ rather than a computer-generated simulacrum. This is a noteworthy piece of information for an analysis of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because it tells us a lot about Tarantino’s particular sensibilities. This story focuses on three characters: fictionalized Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the star of a 1950s Western TV show, his stunt-double-turned-driver, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the actress and wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, and a woman who remains well-known today for having been a victim of the Manson family murders. Layers of various texts constitute Tarantino’s film — fictional films to detail Rick’s career, commercials, flashbacks — always in reference to the multitude of characters whose respective images exist in dialogue with a plethora of sociocultural signifiers and cultural objects, making it known to us the matrices in which these characters exist as well as their wider signifying function. Tarantino’s L.A. is a place of transition, marked by the shifts in the film industry of which Rick is a part: this can be seen most clearly in his eventual acceptance of a starring role in a Spaghetti Western, even after conceding that it spells the downfall of his career. In an earlier scene where Rick is on the set of a Western in which he plays the villain, he wonders, “how’s the audience gonna know it’s [him]” under a load of costume and makeup, showing an expectation on his part for what his image should be: one centered around his position as a star and a recognizable face. This is echoed in Sharon’s interaction with the woman working at a theater ticket booth: the woman’s inability to recognise the real thing speaks to a growing distance between the person and her image, representing not only a shift in how people consume such media but also a more general one in the industry’s approach to the marketing of stars. The irony of the finale, then, can be found in the Manson family’s comeuppance after having declared war against Hollywood’s actors for having presented images of violence to them their whole lives. Indeed, what they find is very much the real thing: humorously becoming one with their on-screen images, Rick and Cliff kill the would-be murderers before the former finally finds a real connection in this city of images, beyond mere occupations, with his neighbor Sharon. Thomas-Redfern


81. More often than not, Noah Baumbach’s films have taken as their object the social anxieties, institutional discomforts, and manic-creative aspirations of an American upper-middle class that is struggling more, and that is more neurotic, than it would like to believe. Baumbach regularly courts and explores the nature and dimension of performance — per his interest in and proximity to the New York theatre scene — and often to his film’s detriment. Indeed, the director’s work has occasionally struggled to justify the decision to be expressed through the cinematic medium at all. The exception may well be 2015’s Mistress America. The film follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman at Barnard, as she attempts to process her concerns about university and future career decisions by latching on to her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a young woman committed to the grift of the New York gig economy — and someone whom Tracy recognizes as a possible future example of her own adulthood decline. Mistress America sets itself apart from Baumbach’s other works through the rhythms of its dialogue, and the style of their delivery, which suggest a confidence at odds with the unremarkable settings of its New York apartment interiors. Characters speak through automated platitudes and compliments edged with such solipsism that the film discovers an honesty in the dishonesty, the real in the falsified — and, above all, a profound incertitude behind the absolute commitment to ‘making it.’ Utilizing this tonal dissonance, Baumbach comes up with some of the most remarkable scenes of his career (notably, a late, some-20-odd-minute sequence at the home of Brooke’s friends), and infuses nearly every moment with a screwball energy and spontaneity that few in American cinema have managed since at least the turn of the century. And while Mistress America’s ideological coordinates can be muddy — it lacks perspective on the economic and social realities of its world beyond the (largely uninterrogated) supplication that’s evidenced in one character’s fleeting consideration that Brooke, the progenitor of the term “Mistress America,” is toying with a concept that renders her “America’s sidepiece” — Baumbach and Gerwig otherwise put forth a sturdy, multi-dimensional examination of the unease and self-doubt that informs the lives of those whose problems will likely be determined by emotional, rather than financial, volatility. McCracken


80. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is almost certainly the premier Vertigo variation of our age, but if you’re reading In Review Online’s best of the decade, you already know that. Better to linger on an alternate lineage as we close out the 2010s, one that is surely evident to German cinephiles, but which is perhaps less obvious to those of us who remain monolingual Anglophones. In the ashes of World War II, as the German nation rebuilt itself, a new genre sprung up literally out of the wreckage. The Trümmerfilm (English translation: “rubble film”) is exactly what it sounds like: a cinema of bricks. Nina Hoss — returning from Nazi death camps to a bombed-out Berlin — finds herself surrounded by them. And while Phoenix undeniably possesses a certain strain of necrophilic, Hitchcockian death-fixation, it is the sight of Petzold’s acteur fétiche clamoring over a pile of blown-apart masonry that is its defining image, precisely because it is the one most freighted with promise. Yes, promise: no matter the emotional devastation wrought by the film’s closing minutes, Phoenix does not end — as Vertigo does — with a shriek and a fall to earth, but instead with a quavery song and a determined, if precarious, flight. That’s perfectly in keeping with the demands of this quintessential postwar genre, which, though it speaks of ruin, contains always its necessary opposite: the possibility of rebirth. Hope for the future is inherent to the Trümmerfilm. It’s also the very thing that might ensure that a different Petzold movie will, in the final estimation, rank as the director’s signal work from this decade: the modern world is on shaky ground, no doubt, but for the moment, it stands; in Transit, our world is perceived, with distressing clarity, as the time before the rubble. Evan Morgan


79. Hu Bo’s first and only film (he comitted suicide in 2017) boasts both an individualistic aesthetic and an uncompromising presentation of the principles of contemporary Chinese society (or, rather, the lack thereof). And yet, An Elephant Sitting Still isn’t so much a film of strong statements as one of mood and atmosphere. Hu depicts what it’s like to live in a milieu that seethes with an overwhelming sense of resignation, his film following four different characters whose fates intertwine amidst episodes of increasingly callous treatment by society. Critics have been quick to note how the director’s depression informs the narrative, and its sense of defeat, but few have really recognized the pathos that’s arrived at here for these characters, or the veracity of the painful circumstances — largely the product of generational trauma — that leave them with increasingly limited choices. Most can agree, though, about the exceptional aesthetic of An Elephant Sitting Still (which Hu not only directed, but also shot and edited): roving, shallow focus, handheld tracking shots are the preferred approach throughout, anchoring the viewer to characters’ perspectives, and to their reactions to events unfolding around them. Hu sustains this cinematographic strategy, remarkably, over a four-hour runtime — a duration that allows characters to slowly come to the decision to flee their northern Chinese city and travel to Manzhouli (the home of the titular, mythical elephant). Hu only breaks his established grammar at the end, for a static wide shot that observes, from afar, as each of the characters leave the toxic rat race behind — a glimmer of hope finally emerging. McCracken


78. The Florida Project is a film of gently profound juxtapositions. Six year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in one of many budget motels, each painted candied shades of lavender and turquoise — a cursory gesture at obfuscating the oppressive nature of the hardscrabble lives within. Moonee and her ragtag friends enjoy delinquency-tinged Our Gang adventures — spitting on strangers’ cars, hustling for cones at a local ice cream shack — backdropped by gimmick burger joints and minigolf courses. They use obscenities and misbehavior as armor, learned from adults but filtered through a child’s imperfect understanding. A not-quite surly property manager (Willem Dafoe) attempts a composed calm, but amidst the perpetual tempest, his tenants’ lives are consistently interrupted and affected by the disarray of circumstance. The brilliance of The Florida Project, then, is that the naturalistic director Sean Baker allows his characters to outshine any message, demanding that they be considered as more than mere ciphers, and making the film’s concluding shot — one more juxtaposition — all the more pummeling for it. Gorham


77. Some artists do not permit masterpieces. In 2010, before Mysteries of Lisbon had its premiere, Raúl Ruiz could claim familiarity with dozens of genres, proficiency in multiple languages, and over 100 directorial credits, but not one work which might stand, incontestably, as his opus. From Ruiz’s perspective, that was probably for the best: aesthetic unity and respectable rigor — the most common benchmarks by which a chef d’oeuvre is measured — are scholastic preoccupations, and they are rightly anathema to the professional saboteur, to the lifelong smuggler. And Ruiz, if he was anything, was a pirate. Hardly a foregone conclusion, then, that the director would dutifully comply with producer Paulo Branco’s prohibition on screenwriting skullduggery: Ruiz could do whatever he wanted in adapting Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1854 novel, provided he stick to the script. Captain’s orders. It helped, of course, that Ruiz revered 19th century literature (his appetite for it was voracious, rivaled only by Borges’s), and that the form of the feuilleton — with its stream of interlocking, dilating, and cascading stories — fits Ruiz’s cinema like a glove. Or, better yet, like a hook: despite the tasteful Napoleonic accoutrements and the smooth narrative sailing, Mysteries of Lisbon retains an unmistakable piratical air. So naturally, after four and a half hours of flawlessly orchestrated drawing room intrigue, Ruiz drops the mask and reveals that he has, once again, made a boy’s adventure movie — though, this time, the adventures are circumscribed by a deathbed. Given that Ruiz himself took ill not long after Mysteries of Lisbon was completed, the film’s perfect, atypical coherence is oddly touching: “Before I die, I bequeath you a few tales, expertly told, and this one unimpeachable work.” More moving though is the fact that, even in death, Ruiz remains uneasy with anything as absolute as a crowning achievement. He continues to scratch around the margins of his legacy, with a hook from beyond the grave. Because if you keep telling stories — imperfect, boundless, unendingly revised stories — can you ever truly close the book on your last will and testament? Do you even really die? Morgan


76. Hard to Be a God took something like six years to film, and was still in post-production when director Alexei German died in 2013. The film was ultimately finished by his wife and son and released into an unsuspecting world; judging by its critical non-reception, the film was unprepared for German’s apocalyptic vision of hell on Earth. Based on the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (whose Roadside Picnic became Tarkovsky’s Stalker), Hard to Be a God follows a group of scientists who have landed on a planet that mostly resembles Earth, and which is going through an era approximating our Middle Ages. These scientists cannot intervene or intercede in this world and what follows is a descent into feudal imagery of grime and mud, guts and snot and excrement and shit. It is a film of extremes, from its running time (nearly three hours) to its oppressive, claustrophobic mise en scene, German cramming the squarish, academy-ratio frame with baroque arrangements that make Orson Welles look minimalist. Filmed in high contrast black and white, with flames and torches as light sources for nighttime scenes, German creates an almost sculptural sense of space, each frame looking like it was carved from jagged stone. This world is full of petty tyrants, each intent on murdering intellectuals and hanging anyone who can read or write. The parallels to Stalinism are obvious, and German extends the metaphor to any oppressive, totalitarian regime that would suppress the people in its pursuit of power. It’s a monumental achievement of 21st Century cinema, one that’s all the more remarkable for the small glimmers of hope that German allows to creep in. Perhaps, if we are lucky, this too shall pass. Gorman

You Might Also Like

In Review | Online film and music criticism