(Not Necessarily) The Best of the Decade: The 20 Most Something Films of the 2010s

The end of an era occasions a list, and list-making quickly becomes as exclusionary as it is celebratory. But perhaps because of this, in the closest days of 2019 the whole exercise put me in an unlikely state of cockeyed optimism. The 2010s were the first decade in which I followed movies in a professional capacity, not just out of personal interest. And I remember it as particularly wan time for cinema. Movies seemed further than ever from the center of the cultural conversation. What mattered to cinephiles was an increasingly isolated bubble, and if there were hotspots of creativity to be found, odds are that they weren’t in America. The biggest blockbusters that could lay claim to being personal cinema—InceptionGravity?—turned into hollow exercises at the most basic scrutiny. And in the indie sphere, very few films from the new American generation (i.e., my own) were as rewarding as watching the previous class of Sundance breakouts grow old. That, at least, was the dismay in my gut every time I tried to compare our last decade of movies to any that had come before it.

Yet the more I tried to expand my wrap-up to capture what I liked from the 2010s—a top 10? a top 20? did we hear 50?—the more it seemed to leave out. So in picking 20 movies to highlight, I ran my (long) shortlist of favorite films through a subconscious randomizer: which, instinctively, did I want to speak my piece about right now? Don’t think, just go.

So this is not a definitive list, either objectively or in my own mind, of the 20 best films of the 2010s. If pressed into playing favorites among favorites, some of them would indeed make it. Some of them wouldn’t. (The Irishman, which isn’t blurbed below, is a much better film than The Wolf of Wall Street, which is, and more word on Parasite can wait until my roundup on 2019—the film isn’t going anywhere). But the grab-bag nature is a more fun mix, probably a more balanced taste profile, and definitely more fair to an art form that, over the long haul, should be treated like a buffet table. All of these 20 I hold dear, think you should see or revisit, and kept my spirit going in a decade that looks less and less wan the more I bounce through it. So let the bouncing begin.

The list is in chronological order. Whittling this all down was madness enough.

Mysteries of Lisbon

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France, 2010)

Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 after directing over 100 films, but not before delivering what may well be the most inviting work of his enigma-filled career. Mysteries of Lisbon is a fluid epic, a merry-go-round of characters and vignettes that envelope you and lead you to someplace grand and unforgettable: the sense that life is long, complicated, messy, and beautiful, and you can spend your whole time on this earth trying to understand it without coming close.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, US/UK, 2010)

Surely Edgar Wright’s new cult classic has issues. It suffers from bloat. Its fight scenes start to get in the way. That extended vegan gag makes me cringe every time I introduce the film to someone. But I don’t care—the humor hooks me right from the opening scene, and the tenderness gets me in the last one. This is perhaps the first Hollywood movie to really be about the video game generation and not just targeted at them. And its sense of style (a kitchen sink mentality, yet precisely controlled) points the way to a formalist comedy we need to see more directors pick up and run with.

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The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, US, 2011) & The Tree of Life: Extended Cut (2018)

If Tree of Life polarization is now ossified instead of fresh, it’s still around—nothing was as easy as praising it, but I feel like I spent a better part of the 2010s telling once-bitten-twice-shy newcomers to at least go back and give Days of Heaven a try. Yes, it’s nearly impossible to take every aspect of Malick’s 2011 opus as seriously as it takes itself. But overreaching is its identity: Malick dropped an unashamedly grand allegory of Man, God, Nature, Death, and other Big Questions onto an irony-besotted culture, proving that he’s either incredibly brave or just doesn’t know any better. Either way, we’re lucky he did. Few movies have ever captured the hazy feeling of childhood memories with such clarity, nor made celluloid feel like one of the Elements. And when an alternate official cut arrived at the end of the decade, adding incidents and even tweaking the meaning, it suggested that “The Tree of Life” may go down as a constantly-shifting quest to encapsulate more than any movie ever could.

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This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

The origin of this 75 minute mini-masterpiece became notorious: the Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested for making subversive films, sentenced to 6 years in prison, and banned from filmmaking. So while he was under house arrest awaiting appeal, he invited a friend over, and they shot a documentary in his living room and smuggled it out of the country on a pen drive hidden in a cake. Most surprising of all is that the final product is not angry, but quietly humane and even shockingly comical. And it’s capped by a mischievous observation for the 2010s: how can any regime hope to control information when anyone with a cellphone could be a filmmaker?

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Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US, 2012)

I’d been hoping circa 2012 that Wes Anderson would come up for air. Needless to say, he didn’t. But within his dollhouse world, he paired his first child heroes with one of his most emotionally grown-up arcs—all of the sudden, he seemed able to view that split from the other side, and he could out-maneuver, out-weird, and out-feel any deadpan imitator. Its ending still floats in my mind as one of the most exquisite of the decade: a graceful coda where youth-in-revolt gives way to the tranquility of old souls, and where Anderson’s career-long theme and modus operandi are so gently illustrated. You can’t go back. But you can create.

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Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal/Germany, 2012)

This favorite from Berlinale didn’t fully hit me until the second time I saw it, which is only fair, since it tells its story out of order. (The resonance of the beginning isn’t clear until the end. Such is life). The first half is a dry, ruefully absurd comedy about the loneliness of old age, where days go by at a crawl. The second half (a distant flashback) is a neo-silent adventure full of exotic locales, lush romanticism, and grand passions, where months go by in an instant. A film of memory, both personal and cultural, full of wrinkles and ambiguities on each account. Final touch: never returning us to the present, lest it break the spell.

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No (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Mexico, 2012)

Shot on wonderfully cruddy 80s videotape, Pablo Larrain’s media satire is a mordantly ironic crowd-pleaser, and the fact that it can be both those things at once says a lot about how film and television work. Its view of how social change is accomplished, if at all, through vague promises of happiness makes it one of the most clever, provocative political comedies of its era. The archival footage it unearths, seamlessly blended into the fiction, is almost too hilariously strange to be believed. Of course the good guys will win. But the terms of their victory are a magnificent question mark.

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Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US, 2013)

Sure, The Social Network‘s combo of style and subject matter is decade-defining by default. But I suspect its analysis of Mark Zuckerberg—a millennial Citizen Kane whose billions can never replace that girl he dated a few times sophomore year—is something the real Mark Zuckerberg found hilarious while he looked for new and innovative ways to monetize our personal data. So you can keep the end of The Social Network, with him dolefully clicking refresh. Just let me keep Andrew Bujalski’s magnificent, lo-fi shaggy-dog comedy about the future Masters of the Universe trying to create artificial intelligence while the human kind isn’t working out. No other indie this decade so reassured me that the Little-Miss-Sunshined Sundance scene still makes room for movies that are bracingly weird.

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At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, US, 2013)

Direct Cinema at its finest: no interviews, no voice-over, no music, no Errol Morris flourishes or Michael Moore stunts—just organized raw footage, creating a documentary portrait of higher education in flux. Never doubt that you’re under the control of a director, and a legendary one at that. But the goal of the film, much like the best college classes, is to invite reactions without prescribing any. And it’s so full of ironies, tragedies, wonders, and contradictions that it’s truly awe-inspiring. Many may chafe at the idea of a four hour doc with no central figure. But keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll get what feels like years of experience and insights in less time than it takes to drive up the PCH.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, US, 2013)

“Self-parody” is a word with a pejorative meaning, but there’s no better or more fruitful way to think of Scorsese’s Long Island dolce vita than as a consciously parodic version of his own Goodfellas and Casino mode. Here’s a rogues’ gallery that would like to think they’re the tough guys in a Scorsese flick, but are actually just overvalued used car salesmen and amoral accounting schlubs. “I’m not stupid,” Jonah Hill insists at one point. “I make million dollar deals with important people.” And that’s the crux of the film. If you want to feel like you’re smart when you’re not, or like you’re important when you’re not, or like you’re a stud when you’re not, the surest way is to have money. Pearls were clutched, but by denying the easy out of morality, no film of the 2010s got so uncomfortably to America’s moral failing. I suspect this may end up looking like a precursor to Trumpism much the same way M looks like a precursor to WWII. It’s frighteningly easy to watch Hill’s character as he points at his own fat head and imagine him getting a cabinet position.

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Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, US, 2013)

In their fourth decade as feature filmmakers, the Coens are still evolving. With this and A Serious Man, they deviate into trickier structures and ambiguous endings, spinning modern folk stories and character studies that are more liable than ever to dart in another direction. In part because of the music, in part because of Oscar Isaac’s performance, and in part because the Coens themselves stretched into new emotional territory, the film does justice to the despondency that so often exists on the fringe of their work. After the career box office high of True Grit, it returned them back to the specialty corner of grosses, and not even the Academy took them up on it. But when all is said and done, I suspect this will be considered one of their best.

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Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan, 2013)

Kore-Eda’s comedy is Capraesque in its simplicity, but fuck it, we needed some Capra, just as Capra needed some revising. Five years into a deep economic slump, when you’d regularly see asshole pundits on TV railing against the poor, Kore-Eda’s film made the beautifully simple argument that everyone could be everyone else’s family. It gets by on the sort of sentimentality that would seem schmaltzy if it weren’t so delicate. But delicate it is.

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The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)

I must confess I’ve never been entirely sold on Miyazaki’s reputation, and my preferences seem to deny sense. I dig Totoro, balk at the excesses of Spirited Away, greatly enjoy some of his early adventure films, and am greatly unmoved by his later ones. But this outlier needs more attention. It’s the sort of film Kurosawa used to make in between samurai movies: a humane portrait of society’s supporting players. The theme of trying to live one’s life outside of history is full of heartache and conflicted emotions. If anyone labels it a “kids movie”, it may be the most morally complicated one ever made.

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It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, US, 2014)

One of the American indie triumphs of the decade is also one of the few recent horror movies to back up a high concept with emotional weight. A remarkably cohesive synthesis of HalloweenRepulsion, and a bit of J-horror thrown in, it’s scary and loaded, sifting intelligently and empathetically through the emotional fallout that can happen when young people (as young people do) stumble into sex. The formal control is smart enough to recognize what made a previous generation of genre experts tick. Bonus points for having teenage characters that, crucial to the heart of the film, actually look and seem like teenagers.

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Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, US, 2015)

It feels odd to hype this as something grand when nearly everything about it is miniature. But I can’t think of a better metaphor for loneliness than every person in the world sounding like Tom Noonan, nor a more persuasive case for what animation-for-grown-ups can do that live-action can’t. Weird, sad, paranoid, so perfect in its own small way that it makes you suspicious of anything more “important” than an artist exploring their own mind. Kaufman still idolizes ditsy women and has a fatalistic hang-up on life in general, but now he can admit it could just be him. These days, with puppets and Kickstarter, making a movie might be cheaper than therapy.

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Get Out (Jordan Peele, US, 2017)

The great coup of the first half is turning the welcoming smiles of white liberals into something creepy, and I say that as one of them. The great coup of the second half is going completely bonkers while perfectly adding up. The result: devilishly unsettling fun as we segued from one foul era to an even fouler alternative. Peele’s original ending was bleak—some might say the cathartic ending we got is a commercial concession. Personally, I think it arrived at a time when being political and giving the crowd a catharsis were one and the same.

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Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, US, 2017)

When the Cahiers du Cinema placed this at #1 on their list of the decade, some cried foul, as if cinephiles were covering for their own deteriorating art form by taking the Golden Age of Television and calling it a movie. But that’s the dilemma: if a Showtime miniseries isn’t what we’d traditionally call “cinema”, Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t really recognizable as “television” either. The closest comparison for its structure and effect isn’t Band of Brothers or a season of The Wire, but an arthouse experiment in extreme duration like Out 1. Whatever word you want to use, it’s one of the most mind-bending, frustrating, rewarding, and unshakeable events of the 2010s: an epic 4D vision of America rotting away, and a curtain call from an avant-gardist turned into an old-timer.

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Burning (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2018)

Parasite made a bigger splash with American audiences, but this Korean class-war thriller, while certainly more hushed, may be more incendiary below the surface. Starting from a baseline of suspicion and jealousy, what emerges is a portrait of a system that can swallow things up and leave hardly a trace. It’s not hard to decode the broad strokes of Burning. It’s there in the title: simply watch what gets burned and what doesn’t. But broad strokes don’t do justice to a murder story that so carefully plays with the very definition of the term. The film noir of the decade.

ROMA

Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico, 2018)

Roma is a great film, but it’s not an unprecedented one. Ask a cinephile, and they’ll tell you all about Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, just as they’ll probably insist that those directors offered a purer, more uncut variety than Cuaron. But Roma would have been an unprecedented Best Picture winner at the Oscars, both as a “foreign film”, a Netflix film, and a piece of quasi-“slow cinema”, and it looked like it might actually pull it off because all the more traditional sources in 2018 failed to rally excitement. Rally they eventually did, not exactly to general satisfaction. But no matter. 2018 will go down as Roma‘s year anyway, a mature triumph for Cuaron and a key moment in the still-being-written history of streaming services as real contenders—swaggering into Hollywood with Silicon Valley money, and maybe throwing some of it at something made for big screens.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, France, 2019)

“Start by drawing my contours,” the heroine sharply instructs her students at the beginning, before directing a tough, self-possessed gaze straight into the camera, as if any drawing could ever pin her down. So right from the start, and well before it erupts into a love story, Portrait establishes itself as an incisive movie about women in art—how images so often fail at capturing them, or might possibly succeed, or always have a head start on the real thing. And for all the 18th century capital-R Romanticism (windswept cliffs, etc.) the film keeps its eye on how this is very much a modern problem. It’s both one of the headiest and most beautiful films of 2019, even if it won’t be properly released in America until February 2020. I caught a sold-out advance screening last night, so consider this less a definitive judgement on the past than an act of fresh hype for the future and a point about the dilemma of these lists. With only hours left in the decade, a worthy option has barely been given to audiences yet.

Take 20—another set that make the cut:

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, Denmark/Norway, 2012)

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, US, 2013)

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, US, 2017)

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, US, 2016)

Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, France, 2017)

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, US, 2017)

The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2018)

Inside Out (Pete Docter, US, 2015)

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US, 2019)

Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, US, 2012)

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, US, 2016)

O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, US, 2016)

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, US, 2016)

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2017)

A Seperation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2011)

Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2013)

The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

Short Cuts: JOJO RABBIT

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For all the ways Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit looked immediately wrongheaded—everything some critics found kitschy and treacly about Life is Beautiful, multiplied by Wes Anderson—there was one moment in the ubiquitous internet ads that kind of tickled me. Rebel Wilson, as a Nazi schoolmarm, shouts “Kids, it’s time to burn some books!”, and a group of fresh-faced ten-year-old students jump up and cheer. Easy irreverence? Perhaps. But what underlies that laugh is a genuine observation: that the horrifying appeal of fascism is rooted in an urge that any red-blooded American boy might understand. And that needn’t be empty. It could be, you know…satire.

An “anti-hate satire” is how the promotions for Jojo Rabbit having been billing it—somewhat defensively, in fact, as if they’re afraid that a candy-colored comedy about a conflicted Nazi child and his imaginary-friend version of Hitler might otherwise scare families away. In truth, Jojo Rabbit isn’t really satire. Not many of its jokes are heady, dangerous, provocative, or incisive, or even try to be. It has very little to say about anti-Semitism (it’s bad) or World War II (it was rough), and honestly, the most startling thing about it is its political irrelevance. In a post-Charlottesville era, where a messy American brand of Naziism has felt emboldened to go public, poking fun at old school “Jews have horns” anti-Semitism and the military pomp of Hitler’s goons feels terrifyingly, cartoonishly obsolete. Waititi reportedly wrote the script in the early 2010s, and as Jojo Rabbit becomes an Oscar contender, I can’t tell if it’s to the film’s advantage or its detriment that the finished product came along now.

But it is very much worth noting what Jojo Rabbit does well, because its flaws gets to its virtues and vice-versa. Waititi has a valuable skill with kid’s-eye-view tenderness. He knows his way around the anxious, even morbid traditions of children’s literature, and the way children relate to parents, to each other, and to the idea of having to be a grown-up someday. When it operates in this vein, Jojo Rabbit so earnest, warm, and cuddlesome that cynicism would be unseemly. But whenever it asks its historical setting for something more grounded—that is, whenever its jokes or gut-punches require the stakes and complexities of WWII—it’s as much a dramatic mishmash and tonal mess as the cynics suspected. So in the end, all that its “just keep going” message really signifies is that history offers no trauma so traumatizing that you can’t eventually make a Jojo Rabbit about it: simplistic, goofy, whimsically aestheticized, a lot safer than it pretends to be, and unable or unwilling to touch past-tense history or present-tense politics. This is a movie that will process the Holocaust by throwing a David Bowie dance party, and if that sounds like toothless hipster myopia, you’re not far off.

But the result is not cynical itself; ironically, something like The Reader, which plays the material straight, feels much more calculated. Jojo Rabbit is more like a movie that a kid would dream up and then somehow get to make, and it may be that Waititi flourishes best in purely fantastical settings that adult scrutiny can’t touch. That impression is aided by the onscreen presence of the director himself, who plays the role of the buffoonish Hitler with total commitment, even when the wit and slapstick are spotty at best. You can call it a “saving grace” if you like. Either way, it’s the reason Jojo Rabbit deserves neither Oscars nor hate: for better or worse, Waititi does seem to be as innocent as his characters.

✬✬✩✩✩

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Jojo Rabbit is in theaters and up for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. For the Oscars, who knows what.

Short Cuts: THE IRISHMAN

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Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has so many familiar Scorsese-isms—intoxicated tracking shots, doo-wop murder scenes, loose cannon friends who just can’t be saved—that it can best be defined by its absences. It’s not just that its color palette is more muted, or that its music cues are subdued instead of frenzied, or that it has a star as accomplished as Anna Paquin say almost nothing, just serve as a persistent symbol of conscience. It’s something central: namely, what makes its main character tick? Why is this the life he chose? It’s a much straighter question for Scorsese’s other career criminals. Ray Liotta in GoodFellas and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street got off on the privilege and material pleasures, neither of which seem to hold much interest for Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran. (He’s far and away the least hedonistic wiseguy Scorsese has ever built a movie around). The De Niro of Casino wanted to construct a stable business empire on top of the congenitally unstable world of the Las Vegas mob; the De Niro of The Irishman shows no such bigger dreams. Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets had the foolish hopes and limited perspective of a young man—a reason that, in The Irishman, wouldn’t cover much of its story, if any. So why fall in with the mob, and why keep going at it for a lifetime?

The closest direct answer we get is when Sheeran says that being part of the mob was just like when he was in the army in World War II: you got instructions, and you followed them. (All we see of his service is a quick flashback, where he quizzically but tellingly notes how POWs who were ordered to dig their own graves would actually do it). His mob is a system to adhere to, with structure, loyalty, comrades, and a sense of shared purpose. “Solidarity!”, as Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa says, for a post-war moment in America where people valued the collective more. This motive can tickle your brain, because more than any of Scorsese’s gangster movies (but less elegantly than The Godfather: Part II), the film ties the backroom dealings of organized crime to more reputable institutions like government, the military, and labor unions. It can also make Frank Sheeran a somewhat frustrating protagonist. There are long stretches of the film where he simply does whatever a Scorsese antihero would do: move up the ladder, bump off the inconvenient, trade one wife for another, etc. He’s about as passive as can be for a character who spends a movie killing people, and his narration of his own life is vastly more expository than reflective. And this vague tinge of removal makes the film’s strived-for grandeur initially elusive—at least until the last act, when it all pays off.

The same can be said for one of the film’s most publicized elements: the digital de-aging effects, which smooth out the faces of De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci in an effort to make them look younger. Scorsese has called the use of the tech “experimental”, and in experimental fashion, it’s partly successful, partly distracting, and with a lot of interesting side effects. It’s certainly not photorealism: in the early scenes, Sheeran seems less like a young De Niro and more like an old De Niro wearing a young De Niro mask. When he curb-stomps a grocer, you’re clearly watching an elderly man mimicking the physicality of a younger one. In the scene where they first meet, Pesci calls De Niro “kid”, and your guess is as good as mine on whether De Niro the “kid” is meant to look 25, 30, or 40. The result is not unlike highly stylized makeup, but the manipulation of the image itself adds a layer of unfamiliarity. But you adjust to it, and when De Niro’s movie-length flashback catches up to his age, it hits you not because he suddenly looks old, but because his oldness suddenly looks natural.

Admittedly, I spent most of the movie wondering if this was all working in practice as well as theory—that is, whether or not The Irishman simply reaches a cruising altitude of expertise and stays there, cycling through incidents in a way that’s not epic so much as long. There’s no shortage of engagement; with this cast and this crew, any given 20 minutes of The Irishman would place among the best moviemaking of 2019. (For all the attention given to Al Pacino’s first Scorsese role, special praise must go to Joe Pesci as a soulful, very un-Pesci-like mob boss). But the last half hour is among the most haunting and somber of Scorsese’s work. Scorsese is right to encourage viewers to stream his three-and-a-half-hour, intermission-free movie in one go, even if he’s spitting into the wind. By the end, the audience should feel the weight of time passed, and what all those absences start to mean when you have nothing left to do with your life but examine it—and not much time left to do so. It is a ghostly final act, explicitly tying together Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and gangster-romanticism like no film of his since Mean Streets. Where The Irishman will ultimately rank in his canon is an exhilaratingly open question. For now, I can safely say that it establishes the right to a legacy and a reputation of its own. And that, of all of Scorsese’s gangsters-brought-low, this is the one whose ending moved me the most.

✬✬✬✬✬

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The Irishman is streaming on Netflix, is up for a bunch of Golden Globes, and will be an Oscar juggernaut. And for the love of god, yes, he’s made a lot more than just gangster movies.

Getting What We Deserve: Reacting to JOKER

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It’s remarkable what a film can go through before the general public has even had a chance to buy a ticket. The trailer for Todd Phillip’s Joker was the best of the year. When it dropped, suddenly an eccentric side-project—a mid-budget standalone origin story, inspired by Scorsese flicks, starring Joaquin Phoenix and inexplicably separate from the rest of the DC franchise—became one of the most anticipated films of 2019. When it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, the stakes were raised. Nobody could miss the new precedent: this was no longer just a comic book movie with a more “adult” approach (Logan, say), but a film that had been prestigiously anointed like no other of its kind. Nobody could miss the irony either: Venice has faced controversy lately over a lack of female representation, and any hope that having Lucrecia Martel as the jury president might change that gave way to a reality where one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed female filmmakers gave a Golden Lion to the director of The Hangover, a frat-bro touchstone unable to imagine a woman who isn’t either a domestic shrew or a down-to-party stripper. Meanwhile, critics fretted about whether Joker‘s outside-the-box take on superhero IP portended freedom or an insidious dependency. Law enforcement went on call at certain screenings, in case the film’s perceived glorification of violent loners inspired a mass shooter to open fire (this is, apparently, the world we live in now). And just for good measure, Todd Phillips stirred the pot on Twitter when he said that PC culture was killing comedy.

By the time I waited out the frenzy and actually saw the movie, a different quote from Phillips’ press junket came to mind. As he told TheWrap, mid-controversy:

We didn’t make the movie to push buttons…I literally described it to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker’.

You can’t argue with success; Joker is now most the profitable comic book film ever made and the first R-rated movie to gross $1 billion. But I wondered, as the end credits rolled, if Joker would have been a better film if it had been made to push buttons—or rather, if it showed a better grasp of which buttons it most certainly pushes, and why.

It definitely makes a number of contrary decisions for a movie called fucking Joker. It’s a scaled-back character piece about madness, with barely two action sequences to rub together but lots of ugly imagery and a running commentary on Reagan-era indifference. It’s also, by my count, the first big-screen version of the character we’re never meant to find funny or charismatic at all. This Joker—Arthur Fleck, by name—is a pitiable and unsettling creation, as Gotham City’s criminal mastermind is boiled down to a picked-on, mentally ill struggling comic who develops a taste for killing and the sense of power that comes with it. He lives with his mother and is cut loose from both his job and the public health facilities he relies on for treatment. But when he uses force to make himself felt, he grows confident; as he puts it, “people are starting to notice.” Any review is duty-bound to note the debt Joker owes to Martin Scorsese’s portraits of sociopathic urban loners, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. From The King of Comedy, it takes a heap of plot points, character notes, and unreliable narration. From Taxi Driver, it gets its vintage Big Apple grime, self-righteous vigilante, and most interesting idea: that a society might become so dire that it mistakes a head case for a folk hero.

So in a time when we can’t keep track of either reboots or horrifying headlines, Joker enjoys playing with fire. And no skeptic should deny it: there’s a lot of craft and intelligent filmmaking in the result. As a piece of tentpole revisionism, it’s well ahead of almost every other blockbuster this year in its plotting, character arcs, thematic detail, aesthetic distinction, and political topicality. But set it alongside where it sources much of the above, and you’ll see how clumsy Joker can be—how often it bluntly reduces its ideas, or montages its way through scenes it doesn’t know how to dramatize, or defines important characters with a single simplistic trait, or hops over a logical gap so it can go straight for the sucker punch. And if any movie, especially a “real” one, is to withstand scrutiny, all of that matters. The audience’s perception of Travis Bickle will shift several times over the course of Taxi Driver without ever losing unity. The King of Comedy has real pathos for the desperate or resigned characters on its ladder of success. Joker‘s hard-R world of alienation (nobody is civil, you get what you deserve, etc.) is not much less of a caricature in its persistent cruelty than the average Marvel movie is in its exuberance. And setting aside ambition, transgression, or craft, it’d be worthwhile to debate which is actually more honest.

There is, however, one way in which equating Joker and The King of Comedy is genuinely deserved, and that is this: both are living embodiments of their main character. The King of Comedy, like its anti-hero, is an aggressively off-putting misfit that spreads discomfort wherever it goes, but by the end, you’ve grown to actually understand and feel for it. Joker, like Arthur Fleck, takes violent actions that resonate politically—but like Arthur, does it ever truly care? At times, it even seems to acknowledge the adolescent limitations of its own worldview. But for every smart wrinkle of nuance, you get choices like the needle-drops for “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2” or “White Room”, which are so self-consciously “edgy” and tonally off from what surrounds them that they practically exist to say fuck you if you want to think too hard about all this, or if you think that provocation means more than nihilistic postures and technique.

The “real movie”/comic-book-film argument has been an incurable meme all season, ironically kicked off by Scorsese himself. Whether or however that divide exists, Joker has a peculiar relationship to it: everything that’s bracing or sensational about the film requires it to draw the line and exist on both sides at once. It’s nearly impossible to be apathetic about it, which is rare enough these days for comic book movies and “real movies” alike. If Joker demonstrates anything, it’s that audiences are eager for more from the former and deserve more from the latter. I suspect that if the film came to edify the multiplexes, it’s also here to troll them.

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Joker is still in theaters and primed for the Oscar race. It played at the Bruin in Westwood Village for over a month. They eventually swapped it for Doctor Sleep, but when Doctor Sleep underperformed on its opening weekend, Joker was back the next Friday.