Tuesday, December 31, 2019


I began the 2010s uncertain of my place in the slipstream of film criticism, and closed it out firmly lodged somewhere between enthusiastic and mystified. Whatever emotion I experienced sitting in a theater, be it involved in something celebratory or a feeling of total despair, the movies never abandoned me; they persisted like stubborn reminders of what is important about the art form, whether it was in a literal sense or in some twisted ironic way, even as some might have represented everything wrong about this strange little industry.

The decade supplied ammunition for both arguments. It was the time of new and exciting voices like Yorgos Lanthimos and Christian Petzold, and of lazy underachievers like Uwe Boll. It was the age of billion-dollar blockbusters, and tiresome trends yielding colossal flops. Established filmmakers plodded along in a career trajectory that allowed for new and exciting ventures. Some promising newcomers like David Robert Mitchell, meanwhile, diversified their portfolio between solid entertainments (“It Follows”) and disastrous aberrations (“Under the Silver Lake”). But all the same we showed up, watched, and responded with our constant passion as moviegoers. A great film was never far from grasp at local art-house movie houses; so, too, was a bad one inevitably playing in the mainstream chains, where it stood a better chance of rising to notoriety, unintentional or otherwise. The common bond among all of them, you could say, was their ability to remind us that there is a bigger world outside of the Walt Disney brand, whose choke-hold on the financial market of moviegoing has cast an impenetrable shadow going into the next decade.

The box office statistics will support this theory. After purchasing 20th Century Fox in the previous year, the conglomerated Mouse House all but secured their legacy as the titan of money-makers, with 7 of the top 10 films of all time now belonging under their umbrella (including “Avatar,” which was displaced mid-year as the most successful film ever made by the last “Avengers” picture). In the broadening image of platform releases across the globe, Disney is finding legs follow anything with name value; that includes a handful of live-action remakes of their famous cartoons, which amounted to most of the repeat business for this year’s ticket purchases.

Unfortunately, not many of the monumental moneymakers is likely to show up on any major awards lists celebrating the last ten years, much less the last twelve months. The values of the critics rest elsewhere: usually in the quiet, the unassuming, the sublime and the delicate. They prefer movies that engage the mind rather than do all the thinking for them. Human behavior is, suffice it to say, more resonant than explosions and a constant barrage of special effects. While this in no way undercuts the joy one might experience with the likes of “Black Panther” or even “Guardians of the Galaxy,” ask yourself this: would you really rank any of them against, say, “12 Years a Slave” or “Moonlight?” How many people can legitimately argue they were moved by any of the “Avengers” films, which do a great job at swelling momentary sensations but nothing for long-term thought?

Cinema descends further and further into the wilderness of marginal creative energies with each passing year, and in the process seems to slacken its grasp on the attention of the civilized world. Is this the nature of a movement that first began in the mainstream in the 1970s? Or a consequence of the gradual dominance of action blockbusters, which too began in the same time window? The answer is no clearer than our own barometer for taste. What I do know, as a movie blogger who shared in on these experiences, is that the ten most important films I saw in the 2010s revealed something new – whether that was about people, history, intellectual and cultural possibilities, or something previously beyond my sphere of understanding. They stimulated something inside I was not expecting. One action film does actually make this list, and it may very well be among the greatest ever made. But its hyperactive foreground was, to its great credit, a mask covering something deeper. And underneath that mask was an insight that reflected the changing political tides of today, where a dying planet could provide an apropos visual platform for our own decaying sense of morality.

(Note: titles will link to the full reviews when available)

The idea begins as a nothing more than an act of audacious lunacy: interview a well-known (and celebrated) assassin of the Indonesian genocide and allow him to recreate his crimes in the style of old Hollywood epics. This premise suggests a directorial chutzpah out of sync with most traditional documentary filmmakers, who are content to simply watch and gather the information on camera. Joshua Oppenheimer engages his subject more directly, and in the process uncovers the unspoken power of film itself. Though the aged assassin Anwar Congo is revered among common people, his actions over the course of his complex and violent life have all been an impulse, a series of moments that lack gravitas in his conscience. But just as it was a meager propaganda movie that drove his hatred of communism in those formative years, so is his staging of a lavish film autobiography the conduit for his own reflection, driving him to a sense of atonement that is captured spectacularly in this movie’s final scenes. When it was made – along with it’s equally-great companion piece, “The Look of Silence” – behind-the-scenes participants preferred to remain silent or anonymous about their contribution, fearing violent retaliation. Their sacrifice of safety endures so that our eyes can see some of the most shocking material ever assembled, in a film that is bold and unflinching without reducing the point to something trivial.

One of the most transformative experiences I have had as a writer of film came from this obscure gem of a picture, made on a shoestring in 2014 in the jungles of Columbia. In the process, director Ciro Guerra molded a dreamy and hypnotic yarn about the very capacity of human understanding. The setup: a shaman isolated in a wilderness overtaken by western missionaries is asked, in two different eras, to be a guide for a traveler searching for a fabled root, which may offer stunning healing properties. The earlier story shows an uneasy alliance wrought with personal cynicism and urgency; the scientist is ill, and not discovering the plant could ultimately lead to his death. But the shaman, weary of the bizarre and cruel habits of the white man, is a thorn in his conscience more than a guide, and this leads to an outcome that casts the later scenario in a plethora of moral gray areas. Guerra’s finale, meanwhile, elevates the overlapping arcs into something even more profound, in a spectacular sequence that rivals the Starchild reveal from “2001.” In a film that thoughtfully contemplates the decimation of natural order by careless men, “Embrace of the Serpent” has that rare nerve to see the bigger picture, where all the arguments might seem like noise among a sky of distant stars.

No one reading this article will likely have heard much (if anything) about Victor Moreno’s elusive documentary about the Madrid underground, but this was one of the most surreal and meditative moments of the year. Without using words or narration, Moreno simply observes the evolution of a subway tunnel: deep beneath the cityscape, where shadows dance across the dark facades of tunnels and machinery until they seem to permeate complex illusions. Notice, for example, how the very first shot of a slick floor looks more as if it were a large star system, and how he purposely lingers on the shot long enough to cast a doubt. Is this coincidence? Not in the least: what Moreno is doing is mirroring the vastness of the cosmos while he explores the unknown just beneath his feet. People in hard-hats, grinding gears, lost animals – they all share this habitat with no more engagement than comets pass each other on a star map. We swirl in thoughts that are entirely self-made, and that’s the more resounding point: even in a place that is hustling along to make room for an elaborate vessel of transport for thousands of people, the immensity of our own solitude can be overwhelming.

Yorgos Lanthimos made three great films in the last decade, but his “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” takes his philosophy to the epitome of its great potential. Drawing on the influence of Greek tragedy, his picture tells of the mysterious relationship between a doctor (Colin Farrell) and a boy (Barry Keoghan), both of whom meet after school and work to muse over a lifetime of random memories. How they are connected becomes one of the great riddles of the first act, to eventually give way to an epiphany that goes beyond the conventions of a traditional film arc. Lanthimos observes the horror with an eerie silence; his characters do not act out or exhibit hysteria, perhaps because the entire ordeal feels like a nightmare they are destined to be released from. The climax turned many viewers off and ultimately disrupted their enthusiasm, but the scenes nonetheless reveal what the picture is ultimately about: how detachment is sometimes the only means of covering visible wounds.

A child goes missing in the early scenes of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s heartbreaking drama, but his absence is the catalyst that will allow the unresolved feelings of feuding parents to explode in fits of rage. A story like “Loveless” has been done before, but never with this much raw emotion, nor this sense of deep disquiet. The couple, going through a bitter divorce, are never able to displace their resentment of one another long enough to create a cohesive search; as a result, the lost boy becomes an everlasting symbol of their own guilt, with the possibility of a body being the only outlet for all that has been bottled up. Zvyagintsev pushes this material with a steady hand that wastes no time basking in cheap melodrama or false optimism. This is a cruel, bitter picture, absent of conventional uplift. And in a wilderness of random faces and strange encounters, those that are most likely drift the farthest away are those we claim to hold close.

George Miller made not only the best “Mad Max” film with this fourth entry, but also rewrote the possibilities of organic action blockbusters. Staged almost entirely in real world locales, his film pulsated with the raw adrenaline of his actors and technical wizards, who were united in a chaos that we could never take our eyes off of (the famous chase sequence that opens the film is, yes, the best single use of special effects of the 21st century). Underneath that captivating exterior, furthermore, was one of the more socially conscientious yarns of its nature: a fable about an uprising of women against an establishment that sees them as disposable commodities. If that spurred a sect of the audience to embrace the picture as an allegory on feminism, so be it: with each passing year we tread closer to normalizing the same sexism and class warfare that would run abundant in dark futures. Not only is the movie an exciting journey through a world in decay, it is a call to arms guiding us away from the tangible possibility of one.

Lars von Trier’s delicate film is less a story of people and more a visual symphony emphasizing their paralyzing pathos, but so rarely has a fatalist meditation looked this good or felt this genuine. Slow and almost agonizing in its pace, the movie examines the lives of two sisters in different stages of depression: one aware, the other covering it in an ambivalent facade. The cosmic event at the center of the film is but an elaborate visual metaphor; as a rogue planet barrels down into Earth’s orbit and threatens the very existence of life, the characters seem content with the inevitable annihilation. What Von Trier may be saying, ultimately, is that agonizing melancholy can be great enough to make even a cataclysmic event seem utterly pointless in comparison. And for the two women who share one final moment of pain, the destruction of an entire planet is a release more than a tragedy.

Bong Joon Ho is no stranger to the story dynamics of class warfare, but even his own “Parasite” could not have been anticipated. The movie is the very embodiment of his own creative ascension, a tour-de-force of audacious showmanship that revels in the seedy possibilities of its mischievous characters. Rare among most films of today, this one has the added benefit of being entirely unpredictable; as we assume the path forward might lead in one direction, the plot builds towards something as shocking as it is unforeseen. I leaned forward with a grin for nearly every frame it occupied the screen, and when it was over, I knew I had experienced one of the most exciting pictures of my time. Does that make it an entertainment more than an essay on class divide? That would depend on how deep your awareness runs. But it works flawlessly as both. Long after most movies will fade from memory, this one will persist as a timeless vessel for all that is ugly and relatable in human behavior.

SON OF SAUL (2014)
Never far from my awareness are the travesties of the Holocaust, and this stirring dramatization from Hungary, told entirely in close-up, was one of the most devastating. “Son of Saul” begins with one of countless encounters of a man who is tasked with luring his peers into the Auschwitz gas chambers, and it never lets up; we witness him lie outright to adults and children as they wander cluelessly into dark rooms that will become their tombs, and are almost awestruck by his lack of emotion. His approach, unfortunately, is the byproduct of a mission that requires him to go blank in the face of horror. It is his only possible path to survival. But when a young boy survives the gas chambers, he is jerked back into consciousness long enough to inspire a rebellion. Where this will lead is hardly surprising, but for one bittersweet moment director Laszlo Nemes rouses us to hope, just before abandoning us in the thick of one tragic passage. Where so many films about the atrocities of Nazi Germany trivialize or soften the scope of the events, “Son of Saul” directs us to contemplate the frozen expression of a victim who sees it all first-hand.

TRANSIT (2018)
Prior to his profound “Transit” making splashes at recent film festivals, Christian Petzold was poised to be forever regarded as the director of “Phoenix,” a runner-up for this very list. But his latest, even more spectacular, also embodies all that we cherish about the cinema: the promise of a core value, the conviction of actors with sublime approaches, the skill of a master cameraman and the joy of a lively delivery. In his wonderfully patient drama, he tells the story of a man caught in the muck of deportations across Europe who stumbles on the belongings of a deceased artist, and is then mistaken for him when he attempts to flee on his own. That sends him through an odyssey of discoveries that aren’t so much tense or strange as they are serendipitous. He meets people he would have otherwise entirely bypassed. People who mold him, enlighten him, evolve his sense of moral distinction. That Petzold does all this so delicately, without relying on melodramatic highs and lows, is astonishing. Not a single scene is overacted. The screenplay treads lightly around the hard drama. Each scene breathes the aura of timelessness. And always at the center of it all is the unending charisma of Franz Rogowski, a German actor who deserves mention as one of the great discoveries of recent international cinema.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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