(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. The more I tried to expand a wrap-up on the 2010s—a top 10? a top 20? did we hear 50?—the more it seemed to leave out, particularly since we just saw a decade where offbeat projects could be far more rewarding than playing the hits. 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 seemed wan, but looks less so the more and 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.

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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)

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.

All Sides of the Screen: ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE and the Cinema of Hong Sang-soo

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With a director as prolific and resolute as Hong Sang-soo, it’s easy to see each film not as a discrete work, but as a piece of an endless whole—a kind of check-in, or the next stop on an artistic trip that’s constantly unfolding. Hong has, if nothing else, been wildly busy: he’s made over ten feature films this decade alone, including one he shot quickly at Cannes during the Cannes Film Festival. Like Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, he tends to return to and remix the same settings, themes, and elements over and over—in Hong’s case: young people at a crossroads, gatherings in cozy bars, the allure of film festivals and cinematheques, and the atmosphere of quiet locales where people go to get away. Also like Ozu, his style of drama is subdued; also like Rohmer, he likes to focus on long takes of pure conversation. But his structures can be as tricky as David Lynch’s: any frame of a Hong Sang-soo film would look like casual digital realism, but he’s just as drawn to time-shifts, ambiguous dream states, meta games, sudden touches of the unexplainable, and identities/realities that are liable to split and merge. His are not the most accessible of films, and I can’t imagine his method could sustain itself economically at higher budgets. But Hong doesn’t need much more than a camera, a tripod, a few actors, and a seaside town. In short, he is one of the few directors truly taking advantage of the possibilities of low-budget digital cinema. He shows that the ingredients of a complex film are so simple—there’s no excuse not to use them.

On the Beach at Night Alone is, as of this weekend, Hong’s latest film to open in the United States, perhaps his most difficult, and certainly one of his most private. It’s impossible to grasp the full emotional resonance without knowing that Hong and his leading lady (Kim Min-hee, twenty years his junior) had just had a scandalous extramarital affair, and the film plays out as an on-screen attempt between ex-lovers to understand each other and the transgression they shared. The word “indulgent” tends to get thrown around with annoying ease on the internet, and I suspect many viewers will reach for it here. On the Beach works so obliquely, or through banal moments, that it is most enjoyable in retrospect and probably most meaningful to its own creators and to those willing to extend them patience. (Hong can be funny when he wants to be, which, as it turns out, is not now). But if we’re calling a moratorium on directors and actresses airing their relationships on film, we’d have to toss out some of the best films of von Sternberg, Godard, etc., etc., which would be tragic. So for now, it’s enough to meet Kim Min-hee as a young woman in an affair with a much older married man—a man, we discover, who happens to be a director.

The film is divided in two. In the first half, the affair is still secret and happily aglow, and Young-hee (Kim) is on a trip to Germany but thinking of him from afar. Accompanied by an older divorcee who was once cheated on herself—a metaphorical stand-in for Hong’s wife?—Young-hee talks about how enamored she is, and the two women share their stories and advice. In the second half—signaled by a strange man inexplicably plucking Young-hee off the beach and carrying her away—the affair is over. And Young-hee, now back in South Korea, is utterly adrift. It’s telling that, throughout this section, Young-hee meets several men who scarcely drive the plot, but none of whom come off flatteringly: they are all either invasive or callow. The man who carried her off the beach appears again, now as a window washer; like one of Lynch’s avatars from the strange beyond, he is pregnant with symbolism, like a clue without a mystery. It all culminates in Young-hee meeting her ex-lover over dinner, where the other guests serve as an audience (us?) while she interrogates him and he breaks down.

Hong’s weakest point is, I think, as a writer. Each seemingly banal scene serves a thematic purpose, but Hong lacks Rohmer’s verbal wit and Ozu’s instinct for defining even minor characters so vividly, either of which could make a film like On the Beach at Night Alone as fun to watch as it is to think, talk, and write about. It is in that final confrontation—a conversation between Hong’s literal ex-lover and an avatar for himself—that the film reaches its excoriating peak. It is a naked exorcism, one of the best scenes of the year. And if, by being the most self-referential and intimate part of the film, it is therefore the most “indulgent”, it is also paradoxically the most accessible and dramatic; when it comes to art, the intimacy dragged up by indulgence is something we could use a lot more of.

The challenge of Hong’s films is one of reversal: if most movies are explicitly emotional films that open themselves to academic readings, his are more academic films where emotion is fully unleashed by deconstruction. The ultimate satisfaction of On the Beach is how we’re watching a romantic connection that goes not across the screen, but through the camera—with the heroine’s mindset informing the presence of everyone she meets. The cult of the director reigns supreme in cinephilia, and Hong’s own sneaky presence is felt, as always, with the sudden, enigmatic pans and zooms during scenes so otherwise given over to visual stasis. But Kim shows just how much an actress can grab control of the screen and not let go. In a strange way, it reminds me of the old cartoons where a creation would rebel against its own animator. Only here the battle is a love affair and the creation is a real woman—a woman who won’t be kept in, who commands the sympathy and understanding of the crowd, who will take strides to show just how little she needs men, and who demands her challenges be answered. She holds the film together, just as she can ultimately chose to simply walk out of it, and just as he (by proxy) will step in front of the camera and confess. It is her film as well as his. In its wreckage and weary final peace, it is theirs.

✬✬✬✬✩

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More Interesting Than the Oscars 6: Worst Year of Our Lives Edition

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New York City on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 was an eerie place to be. No one could ever accuse Manhattan of being quiet, but that day—the day after the city voted overwhelmingly against Trump—a mood of silent dread seemed to hang in the air, broken from time to time by a passerby on their cell phone talking hurriedly about how fucked up the night before had been. On November 10, I was back in the city on a (previously scheduled) trip to take two friends to see Dr. Strangelove at Film Forum. By then, I was curious to see how it would play given the general dear-god-what-the-fuck mood. But the audience loved it, laughing at every little touch of pitch-black cynical comedy—at least, until the end. As the world blew up, everyone at Film Forum went dead serious, and were dead serious still as they all shuffled out of the theater. And I wonder, if 80,000 rust belt voters had gone the other way, whether or not that 50-year-old sick joke would have suddenly seemed so rattling again.

Needless to say, 2016 will be remembered for many things more than its movies. The year was a clusterfuck: it began as one and ended as one, and the political plot twists in between put the imagination of screenwriters everywhere to shame. And I suppose it was inevitable that cinema itself would get caught in the whirlwind. Flashing back to January 2016, two movie news items are worth noting. First, at the Sundance Film Festival, during the height of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Nate Parker’s slavery film The Birth of a Nation set a $17 million record for the biggest deal in the fest’s history, pegging it as an early Oscar frontrunner, essentially for political reasons. Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, and virtually at the same time, the Trump team organized free screenings of Michael Bay’s action extravaganza 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, with its anti-bureaucrat machismo serving as propagandistic catnip for any Trump fan’s hatred of Hillary Clinton.

From there, the year only got messier. The Birth of a Nation‘s Oscar hopes were dashed when Nate Parker’s college rape charges landed in the mainstream press. The studio tried to get out in front of it, but the disturbing details, a tone deaf response, and an acquittal that sounded more like a technicality than a moral exoneration effectively sunk the film and its writer-director-star. A contender had, by the start of Oscar season, become a footnote, leaving us with two ironies. First is that, even if you set Parker’s scandal aside, Birth is something of a sham. It is a thin and flimsy piece of filmmaking, inspired by Mel Gibson and adopting Gibson’s worst traits—bludgeoning simplicity, fetishistic violence, and one hell of a messiah complex—but without the craft. In short, what ended up on screen is less interested in promoting knowledge of American history than in promoting Parker himself.

The second irony is that, even with Birth out of the picture, 2016 was a far better than average year for people of color getting noticed by the Academy. Currently, non-white artists are all but locks for Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Documentary Feature at the very least. And while the usual suspects may wish to blame this on the Hollywood PC police, all of those wins (and maybe an additional upset or two) will be goddamned deserved. That a film as outside-Hollywood as Moonlight is receiving such attention—its impressionistic style is a bigger mainstream hurdle than its absence of white faces—is cause for hope. It’s one of the most moving films I’ve seen this decade.

Back in 2011, I started calling this series “More Interesting Than the Oscars” because, compared to the diversity of filmmaking styles on the festival circuit, the Academy goes by a painfully ordinary definition of what constitutes a good movie. It’s not just that the Oscars are a popularity contest, it’s the nature of the popularity contest: it always seems to me that the Oscars—Hollywood honoring its own vaunted position in film culture—want very badly to be liked. That is, they want to acclaim films that a maximum number of people could see and be moved by, not necessarily which films are the most inventive.

Yet, to give them their credit, this year’s biggest Oscar contenders contain some fairly interesting frontrunners, or at least share a larger than usual overlap with the cinephile literati. Either the Academy is getting edgier or we’re getting more ordinary ourselves. But the smart money is still on La La Land to take Best Picture and a big haul along with it. And it speaks to our divided time that “what did you think of La La Land?”—a frothy, cine-literate, visually marvelous trip to the movies—has become such a loaded question requiring such a circumspect answer.

I’ve heard the praise, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, and the analyses from as many sociological angles as possible. If/when it wins, La La Land won’t be the best film of 2016; it’ll be another in a long line of Best Pictures that prize escapism most of all. But it won’t be an abomination. It won’t even come close to being the Academy’s biggest Best Picture misstep this decade. The Artist didn’t display nearly as much understanding of the cinema it was paying tribute to, and Argo was such a banal piece of workmanlike entertainment—”it’s a rental”, as we’d say in the era of Blockbuster Video—that assigning it lofty importance was a bigger act of insider self-congratulation than any of La La Land‘s hype.

Maybe it’s best to set the Oscars aside, because this year was a fine year to be a moviegoer, and not just for the awards bait. I have to admit I had trouble narrowing my list down. There are a few easy-pick great films at the top, but then one has to sort dozens of films that, while flawed, belong in any highlights reel of the year. So I should take a moment to praise what didn’t make the final list but deserves mention: the musical numbers and brotherly bond of Sing Street; the cheerfully insolent title hero of I, Daniel Blake; the Danny De Vito segment of Wiener-Dog; Natalie Portman’s achingly forced smile as she guides a TV crew through the White House in Jackie; Tom Hanks’ shell-shocked hero in Sully; the flow of dialogue in Fences; the precious moments of lyricism in American Honey and Knight of Cups; the fact that a film as insane as The Love Witch even exists at all; and not one but two delightfully laconic Texan sheriffs, embodied by Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals and Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.

And now, my favorite 10 films of 2016. As always, the term “favorite” is way more honest than “best”. Objectivity is for suckers.

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10. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

Five years ago, with A Separation, Asghar Farhadi became the first Middle Eastern director to win Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. The Salesman isn’t quite on the level of that arthouse hit. But I remain stirred by how Farhadi can make a movie about so many things at once—class relations, the treatment of women in Iran, the tie between art and life, cross-pollination between the East and West, the challenge of expression under a regime of censorship—while not losing focus on his characters. The story, a kind of social thriller set against the backdrop of an Iranian theater troupe adapting “Death of a Salesman” (that quintessentially American play), is thought-provocation at its finest.

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9. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, US)

Mike Mills’ follow-up to Beginners is another look at family units and the gap in how separate generations see the world. He colors firmly and modestly—some might say annoyingly—in the “indie film” lines. But he distinguishes himself with an earned sense of worldliness: his film aspires to nothing more or less than understanding of how different people approach the same basic problems and all come up short. They are, after all, only human. No new ground broken, but every awards season needs a film you can safely recommend to your parents. Can’t say that about Elle or The Handmaiden, can you?

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8. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, US)

Film is a medium more suited to emotion than intellect; for that, we always have the written word. So it’s worth stressing that this cinematic adaptation of the writings of James Baldwin, perhaps the most famous intellectual of Black American life, is an intensely emotional experience. Its assemblage of archival material is, like Baldwin himself, both deeply passionate and eloquently reasoned, and it covers everything from personal recollection to political turmoil to pop culture criticism with an almost uncomfortable intimacy. What stays with me most is the footage of the man himself, with a look in his eyes that seems to fear or realize that most of what he has to say, no matter how well he says it, will fall on a great many deaf ears. I left shattered.

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

This is what our new golden age of television is good for. At different times biography, sociology, police procedural, and courtroom drama—and gripping for all 7 hours—this lucidly recounted story of race, fame, wealth, and media imagery has too many cruel ironies and nuanced perspectives to name. Are stories supposed to have morals? Made in America offers several but doesn’t insist on any of them. The overwhelming urge is to step back, contemplate, and ache for all involved. Originally airing on ESPN, with screenings at festivals and select theaters to qualify for the Oscars, you can binge-watch it now on Hulu.

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6. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)

Toni Erdmann is exceptionally peculiar, not least because it feels so familiar. Surely its basic narrative arc—an embarrassing, anarchic relative invades the life of a joyless workaholic and teaches them to loosen up—has powered innumerable hack Hollywood comedies. Early reviews literally praised it as a savior of cinema; a friend of mine said it first struck him as “a three hour German Mrs. Doubtfire.” Yet during its (not quite) three hours, it gives its story such an utterly tender context and specificity that it stayed in my mind for days afterward. Its comic setpieces will get the most attention; its little details and asides are what make it special.

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5. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

Apichatpong’s previous feature, Uncle Boonmee…, made history as the first Thai film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His return—though if you count short films, he never went away—reminds us of what makes him such a valuable and imaginative voice in global cinema. He shows us a world of modern industry and mass culture, but with the spirits, phantoms, and memories of time immemorial mixing seamlessly with the present. Like its predecessors, Cemetery of Splendor insists the world we live in has a magic and spirituality to it that, in an inspiring way, his heroes unquestioningly accept as fact. Like its title, it is both a dark and optimistic film, full of love for its characters and arguing that human contemplation is much better at getting below the surface than any material tool.

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4. Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France)

In which provocateur Paul Verhoeven, who once scored with such deceptively smart Hollywood “genre films” as RoboCop and Total Recall, resurfaces in France and throws down the gauntlet right away. The first 20 minutes are a brilliant, provocative metaphor for women expected to be unflappable in a world of sexual aggression, and from there it goes the full Almodóvar. But it’s Isabelle Huppert’s show, beginning to end, and she commands the screen in a way that suggests the “her” of the title is Woman with a capital W—lover, mother, daughter, boss, independent woman, both empowered and victimized, out to experience the world on her own terms and no one else’s. Whatever you do, don’t read a plot summary beforehand. Let each perverse twist of this sordid revenge tale hit you fresh.

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3. Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, US)

I keep seeing people describe Manchester By the Sea as a downer, a miserably hopeless and pessimistic tale. I wonder if I saw the same film. Certainly, a great many bad things happen it. Yet by the end, everyone seems (at least to me) like they’re starting to learn, starting to let their guard down, starting to turn in the right direction. Can a film so full of misfortune and self-destructive behavior be hopeful? I think so, and this one is surprisingly sprinkled with humor. The triumph of the film, quite apart from Lonergan’s skill with dialogue and actors, is that it has a structure befitting a novel. Fuck Syd Field’s three acts: Manchester just keeps unrolling and unrolling, never afraid to flash back or add a new character into the mix. It feels like it could go on forever—no doubt part of what its detractors hate about it. But it’s currently the frontrunner for Best Original Screenplay, and misery or no, nothing else could warm my heart.

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2. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, US)

Here’s something I never thought I’d say in the year 2016: one of the very best films of the year belongs to Jim Jarmusch. In the history of American cinema, Jarmusch always seemed stuck in his very specific time and place, a key figure from the 80s/90s Sundance explosion who’d casually segued into being an elder statesman of acquired taste and excessive hipsterdom. But if by some tragedy he decides to retire now, Paterson would make a heartbreaking and ideal testament film, a mature fulfillment of the recurring themes of his early work. For Jarmusch, the USA is the land of Walt Whitman and Iggy Pop, and he reminds you that, while art may get filtered through studio sets or New York publishing houses, it springs from ordinary, unassuming streets like grass growing through cracks in the cement. Paterson is a minimalist sitcom, a melancholy look at the daily grind, an idiosyncratic love story, and an ode to the urge to create, no matter how good or bad your creation is. Adam Driver is perfect as a shy aspiring poet spotting links in the everyday world.

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1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, US)

Gorgeous and heartbreaking, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight may be the only film I’ve seen this year that struck me as a contender for a new classic of American independent cinema. It is a work of sweep and detail, directed in such a slippery style that once it’s over you won’t be sure if you saw the film it or dreamed it. As a work of narrative sophistication and visual storytelling, it marks a giant leap forward for its director; this is only Jenkins’ second film, and already he’s made his mark on Oscar history. It’s a deeply felt tale of suppressed emotion and identity told like The Wire reinterpreted by Claire Denis, and a story of the passage of time as melancholy as the magnificence of the Ambersons—and just as quintessentially American. For more, you can check out my review on the MUBI Notebook.

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The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year…

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, US)

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, US)

Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia, US)

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, US)

The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, US)

Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen, US)

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)

Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, US)

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog, US)

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Greece)

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, US)

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, US)

Silence (Martin Scorsese, US)