Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Best films of the 2010s

The best of the past ten 

A grim decade, grimmer now in its passing. Not a lot of comedies on my list, and what laughs are available often die strangled in the throat. Do the films reflect that grimness?  

In ascending order:

Didn't expect to like S Craig Zehler but there you are. The filmmaker judging from his latest work Dragged Across the Concrete is either right of rightwing or likes to depict characters that are--there's just enough ambiguity, clumsily introduced, to suggest the latter. 

The problem isn't as pronounced with his debut feature Bone Tomahawk--the film is set in the comfortably distant past, and features not native Americans but 'troglodytes'--cave dwellers from the prehistoric past that have lingered into the 19th century. Which actually just shifts the issue a step back: Zehler may not be depicting indigenous folk as murderous savages, but he does neolithic man--or any member of the alien 'other'--no favors. The drama is ruminatively paced the violence jarringly explicit, though he does take shortcuts to justify some of his most gruesome effects (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film)--if for example the troglodytes hack a man in half, you'd think they'd learned enough surviving for millennia to gut him first, or do they just like the taste of tainted meat? 

Dragged Across the Concrete is more explicitly provocative: Mel Gibson is a soulful-looking cop gone rogue, not because he wanted a new boat but because he was suspended without pay for stomping on a Latin-American suspect's head during a drug bust, and--worst--allowed himself to be captured on video. Never mind that the perp sold drugs to kids, or that the officer's wife needs expensive meds for her multiple sclerosis--the mainstream media's bloodlust for the politically incorrect must be sated. Again Zehler takes a few shortcuts to sell his case--Who would actually dare bully the daughter of a police officer? And granted a black man freshly released from prison, does his mother have to be an aging prostitute still turning tricks to support her heroin habit?--but the filmmaker has a clean quiet way of staging action, has a talent for drawing out suspense or the slow burn, has a way of giving spare dialogue a fresh twist, have an actor deliver said dialogue in casually odd cadences. The latter ability is less apparent in Bone, where you naturally assume they talk different in the Old West; in Dragged the eccentricity adds distinct charm. Critics complain that he's not quite Quentin Tarantino and I agree--he's much better, a deft dealer in pulp fiction who makes no pretense to even wanting to be liked. 

Tim Burton has been hit or miss, mostly miss; that said I'd pick even his misbegotten Dumbo over any Disney production live action or animated, and his Big Eyes is a cunning little tale of misappropriated credit. Speaking of Disney, my favorite film involving the studio has to be hands down Sean Baker's The Florida Project, about life lived on the margins of The Enchanted Kingdom.

Not a fan of the Wachowskis, thought their last good work was Bound over a decade ago, but now I'm back in love with Jupiter Ascending. Nuts? Maybe, but I find this deliriously campy science fantasy epic more stylish and fun than almost anything Star Wars, recent sequels included (maybe not Empire, but I consider that a Kershner film, not a Star Wars film). 

Romantic comedies are the hot genre in Asia in general and the Philippines in particular. Not a big fan, but I do like two fairly successful recent examples: Sigrid Andrea Bernardo's Kita Kita, which uses indie film aesthetics (especially the partly improvised performances of the two leads) to freshen up a plot borrowed from Chaplin's City Lights; and Johnnie To's Don't Go Breaking My Heart, about a love affair conducted between two oppositionally positioned office windows across two buildings, with a visual wit that puts the better-known Crazy Rich Asians to shame. 

On the subject of horror: Drew Goddard's direction of Joss Whedon's script for The Cabin in the Woods is a metaphysical sendup of the eponymous genre; after this any further attempts feel redundant, or should. Then there's Tracy Edward Shults' It Comes at Night; grimmer yet so elegantly staged and shot it's like a portent in visually poetic verse of lockdown during this time of corona. 

Onward to the three Andersons--can't say this was Paul Thomas' decade; The Master was well-made but emotionally opaque, Inherent Vice a slowed-down version of the sparkling Pynchon novel. Phantom Thread I enjoyed as a metaphor for the director's micromanaging ways, appreciated the witty solution formulated to deal with said ways.

Wes is at first glance Anderson lite at second no less visually distinctive, a hermetically sealed filmmaker in whose aquarium films exotic creatures swim against the background of intricate miniature castles. Found his Moonrise Kingdom emotionally satisfying because 1) his stories seem to resonate best in a childhood setting and 2) he needs romance to drive his often meandering narratives, and this particular love story is more appealing than the rest.

My favorite Anderson by far is the underrated Paul WS with Pompeii arguably his masterpiece--a historical melodrama in the Gladiator mode (albeit on a smaller budget) that improves on Ridley Scott's elephantine edifice by being fleet of foot and offhandedly beautiful, pausing only to evoke an image straight out of Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy before the final fadeout.

Most folks would consider Walter Hill over the, but the 78-year-old managed to direct not one but two films in the past decade. Would like to include his Bullet to the Head, which I consider the best film Sylvester Stallone film ever made but much prefer his The Assignment with its demented sense of sexuality (top hit man has his sex surgically reassigned without his consent). 

Still on the subject of sexuality and norms other than hetero, can't quite appreciate the beauty of the bodies in Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake much less the stony beach (in the Philippines we judge beaches by the texture of the sand, from coarse to regular to confectioner's sugar; pebbles are a horrifying idea) but I can appreciate the deep blue lakewater, the surrounding Edenlike forest, the erotic languor lightly seasoned with danger. Better yet in my book is Andrew Haigh's Weekend, which substitutes a buffet of gay sex with a simple dish of lovemaking, and the painfully intimate bond that develops. 

Nadine Labaki's Capernaum, where homeless 12-year-old Zain cares for and supports the infant Yonas, is childhood poverty at its most extreme and immersive. Labaki not only sinks us neck-deep in it she shoves our faces in it--the film is full of the shrieks and stench of Beirut slums. The ending feels a bit contrived, but the power of the earlier sequences remain. 

Joselito Altarejos' Jino to Mari (Gino and Marie) takes the Boatman/Private Show sex performer's story a step further, the real spectacle here being of two people stripping away their sense of self--not a pretty sight. Park Chan Wook's The Handmaiden is sensual fun, not to mention diabolically funny. David Cronenberg with A Dangerous Method abandons the use of prosthetic effects to fashion the ultimate Cronenberg creature: Kiera Knightly as Sabina Spielrein, catalyst and inspiration to two of the greatest 20th century minds, Carl Jung (who also became her lover) and Sigmund Freud.

Antoinette Jadaone's Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay takes the one-of-a-kind veteran actress of Filipino horror films and weaves a funny poignant metafictional fable around her unappreciated acting career. Denise O'Hara's Mamang brews a similar cup of comic morbidity and adds a dollop of pathos, basing the story on her uncle--late filmmaker Mario O'Hara--and his close relationship with his mother.

Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster is his most popcorn effort yet, an enjoyably wayward take on Ip Man, the legendary martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee.

Richard Beymer, who was the single dullest thing in West Side Story, has since become a more than interesting filmmaker; his Beyond the Big Bang is 1) an attempted adaptation of Rudy Wilson's The Red Truck, 2) an attempted documentary on the making of Wilson's novel, and 3) a brief document of a turbulent period in Wilson's life. Beymer flits from one story to another with deft fluidity; if he seems to drop the novel's thread along the way, possibly deliberately, he more than makes up for the loss with charmingly imaginative humor and an unforced yet potent eroticism (mainly thanks to Ariel Denham, an original presence Beymer photographs with obvious relish).

Bong Joon Ho's Parasite escalates the class wars into fiercely engaging comedy, skewering lower and upper classes both.

Terence Malick's Tree of Life is his 2001--a cosmic vision both lovely and hypnotic, but lacking the ironic spine of Kubrick's masterpiece; better in my opinion is Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, which more Thoreau-ly less soppily and far more cheaply evokes enigmatic nature.

Claire Denis' High Life is her 2001, about the crushing isolation of deep space after his fellow space travelers have died by either suicide or violent murder (If hell is other people, is being sole survivor--with your baby daughter as only companion--heaven?). Arden Rod Condez's John Denver Trending depicts isolation of a different kind, imposed by a community driven to hysterical frenzy by social media. 

Sari Lluch Dalena's Ka Oryang depicts the institutionalized isolation of women political prisoners during the Philippine Martial Law period. Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Salvage suggests not just the dangers faced by journalists under the Duterte regime (military checkpoints and random killings and all) but the dangers of an increasingly pixilated world pulling loose of its moorings (fake news, fake president, fake reality). 

John Torres' Ang Ninanais: Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song is a heady mix of fable and fiction presented secretly, intimately, like poetry whispered in your ear. David Gordon Green's Joe is the plainspoken portrait of a reclusive young man and his monstrous abusive father--and the alternative father figure that represents possible salvation.

Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria plays enigmatic narrative games with the viewer; his Personal Shopper is even more fun, a genre-bending mix of ghost story, psychological thriller, and conspicuous consumption vicariously experienced through the eponymous shopper.

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer ratchets up the paranoia about endangered scribes and hidden political scandals (a nation's leader as foreign agent, which sounds distressingly familiar); Eduardo Dayao's Violator--about a local jail cell holding what could possibly be the Devil himself--feels just as paranoid but is even more interesting, basically Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo as remade by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.

Hou Hsiao Hsien's The Assassin is perhaps his most perverse, a wuxia romance and also unapologetically a Hou film, leisurely paced and lyrically detailed. In Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy a man and a woman meet and talk--that's all; yet the film feels thrilling and mysterious.

Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night is gorgeous sensuous tapestry especially the latter half, an hourlong shot that follows our hero through a summary restatement and revision of everything that occurred before. You might call Laj Ly's Les Miserables a crime thriller with some justification but I'd rather call it a panoramic portrait of Montfermeil in the spirit of Hugo, from its highest-ranking gang lord and police officer to its lowliest street gamin, shot in a jittery shaky-cam style I find far more successful (because clearer, more restrained) than that of the more established Safdie brothers.

Jafar Panahi's spiky relationship with the Iranian government is well-known but even better is the ways in which he continues to needle the administration. Confined to home and forbidden from making films, he has a documentary filmmaker record him reading the script of his proposed film, analyzing his past pictures, wondering what good his films are anyway, if all that's needed to make interesting cinema is a camera (director strictly optional)--you might say Panahi was practicing lockdown a decade before it was really fashionable. Equally ingenious is his Taxi, where instead of a movie camera he uses the vehicle's security cam, instead of actors he uses actual fares (or so it seems) and instead of a script he simply records the interchange between him and his fares (or again so it seems). For a man banned from filmmaking--a man presumably not a filmmaker--Panahi makes the most engaging films. 

Sunao Katabuchi's In This Corner of the World tells a nuanced story of survival in World War 2 Japan; a young wife copes with hunger and loneliness (she's been married off to a man in a nearby village) by producing page after page of lovely sketches; the film's high point is an aerial bombardment of their village seen through her artist's eye as paint spattered across the sky. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation may seem circumstantially smaller but emotionally more intense, focusing on a pair of families and the escalating sense of recrimination and guilt that builds between them. 

Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda's take on urban poverty, roils considerably less than Bong Joon-ho's but in my book feels more honest. Lee Chang Dong's Poetry, about a grandmother dipping her toe in the realm of verse while trying to fathom her grandson's troublesome psyche is even more austere even more, well, poetic.

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman is a portrait of the gangster as lonely old man, confronting not just mortality or his conscience but the relentlessly withering forces of time itself. Talking about time, Maasaki Yuasa's The Tatami Galaxy is nominally an 11-episode anime TV series not a film but its use of cyclical variation--of resetting the clock again and again in an attempt to achieve the rose-coloured campus life--and its mixed visual styles (cartoonish animation, digital animation, live-action footage) are irreducibly cinematic, the often metaphysical humor highlighting the unnamed college upperclass protagonist's estrangement.

Call Lav Diaz the King of Loneliness: his protagonists often wander through a desolate landscape, seeking and failing to find human connection. In Ang Hupa (The Halt), the landscape is more desolate than usual: it's 2034, and the Philippines is under perennial shadow thanks to ashfall from volcanic eruptions, has been grievously depopulated thanks to several flu pandemics, and chafes under the rule of a despotic Duterte figure. That Duterte figure (Joel Lamangan, in a performance Joaquin Phoenix should takes down notes of while watching carefully) inspires both repulsion and pity; for all his power the man is a forlorn figure with no one brave enough or honest enough or caring enough to point out his fading cognitive abilities. 

Jane Campion's Top of the Lake is again a mini-series not a movie, but the image of her police officer protagonist wandering through New Zealand's vertiginous landscape--the crystalline lakes, cathedral forests, sudden precipices reflecting the crystalline thinking, cathedral depths, sudden precipitous trauma laid out within her head--can't be called anything but cinematic, with a strong stubbornly independent feminist streak distinguishing her from the small town folk she grew up with.

Hu Bo's An Elephant Sitting Still is a study in gray--gray folks with gray futures scattered dispiritedly throughout a gray Chinese city (Jingxing County, in Hebei Province). This is Hu's first and last film (he killed himself shortly after) and despite meager resources pours heart and soul into every frame (the long takes; the intricately woven plot; the characters bent low by some unseen load) as if knowing this would be his only opportunity to express himself. The opportunity was not wasted. 

Failed to see Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language in 3D as intended (3D arthouse is if anything even more difficult to catch than ordinary arthouse)--still the world's most inventive living filmmaker. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not so much inventive as he is singular--his films look and feel like no other's, his Cemetery of Splendour with its rows of soldiers lying comatose under bars of colored lights one of his most haunting.

Janice O'Hara (Denise's sister) took her late uncle's script and turned it into Rice Soldiers (Sundalong Kanin), her (or her uncle's) harrowing take on children struggling to survive World War 2--like Hu Bo her first and last feature. Mario O'Hara's The Trial of Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio) is his independently produced, digitally shot, theatrically stylized take on one of the most infamous episodes in Philippine history, the railroaded conviction of the film's eponymous hero.

Lav Diaz's Norte, The End of History retools Crime and Punishment to make sense in a Filipino context, tossing out the novel's Porfiry Petrovich (A cunning police officer? In the Philippines?) while keeping its charismatic enigmatic evil Raskolnikov. Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion fabricates out of the life of Emily Browning a rhymed meditation between image and text that does justice to the poet; the later passages, where Emily shuts herself away for the remainder of her brief life, are devastating.

Paul Schrader's First Reformed retells the story of his Taxi Driver loner yet again, this time in the style of Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) and Bergman (Winter Light), to find saving grace in Ozu's sanity-restoring sense of humor. Terence Davies' Deep Blue Sea--his second title on this list--is a spare tale sparingly told: a few sets, a handful of actors, an unforgettable woman abandoned. Lee Chang Dong again, with Burning, picks up the class war anger smoldering in Bong Joon Ho's Parasite and draws it like a scalpel across the jugular.

Khavn's Balangiga: Howling Wilderness is anger of the flamethrower kind--a creatively reimagined (to put it mildly) depiction of the American massacre at Balangiga, but also a thinly veiled metaphor for Duterte's bloody drug war.

James Gray's The Immigrant (the very word feels politically loaded) dramatizes the sexism and xenophobia experienced by refugees seeking to live in The New Land--ostensibly at the turn of the century, though the story could have been on CNN this morning. The title of Lav Diaz's Florentina Hubaldo CTE suggests the abuse inflicted on the eponymous character (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a head injury usually found in football players)--the same time the character comes to represent the Philippines as a victim of abuse.

The last few films aren't just in my book the finest of the decade but fine portraits of isolation; if the decade has any overarching theme (especially in the latter years and especially in its ongoing transition into this decade) I submit it's the quarantining of people from one another, either forced or self-imposed. What do they have to say on the subject? That left on our own we're rotten human beings.  

Lav Diaz's Panahon ng Halimaw is the filmmaker's idea of a musical, a black-and-white rock opera with no instruments only unaccompanied voices, condemning the Marcos and Duterte regime both in an all-consuming rant, its protagonist a dreamer sleepwalking through his own drama till finally forced to (maybe, hopefully) wake.

Orson Welles died in 1985 but his reputation for miracles persists; his The Other Side of the Wind released some 33 years after his passing is as maddening and provocative as anything he's ever done, a bittersweet valentine to the industry he came to hate and love, and to the artist-filmmaker who insists on attempting to deal with that industry on his own terms.

Martin Scorsese--again--with Silence. Jesuit priest wanders Japan, is caught and tortured. Scorsese's protagonist wrestles with a crisis of faith for the umpteenth time and what for me is the film's real point is what happens after the climactic confrontation: the odyssey of a soul that lost everything, even its sense of self. The final image, condemned as being unduly optimistic, is actually shrouded in ambiguity; there are no real answers here, only

David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return is yes nominally cable television (though the first four episodes premiered in Cannes) but so radically out there (see Episode Eight) it really is its own creature. The protagonist is yet another sleepwalker who has mislaid not just his friends in the eponymous northwestern town (he somehow ends up in Las Vegas) but his very identity (he suffers from amnesia, that most classic of daytime soap tropes). The subtext--running through Blue Velvet, Mulholland DriveTwin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to this--is a classic noir admonition: Cherchez la femme, pardieu! Cherchez la femme!

Speaking of dieu there's Aleksei German's Hard to be a God, about a man secretly embedded in a shitsmeared pukestained rectum of an alien planet, alone and not a little depressed, as perfect a visual summation of the decade as any. Looking at the film one hopes things (in that world, in this one) get better--difficult to imagine how they can get any worse.

Beyond that? The late Isao Takahata has always allowed in his films the possibility of things getting worse, has actually made a World War 2 film--Grave of the Fireflies, about two children struggling to survive in wartorn Japan--where things do get worse, but imagines more. His The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a retelling of one of Japan's oldest stories only with a more psychologically rounded heroine set apart from humanity by her innocence, capable of desire guilt defiance, and in telling that story--in ruthlessly following the contours of the narrative's inexorable progress--has us alternately plunging and soaring in sympathetic resonance. Takahata in his last feature allows for the full range of human experience, not just madness and suffering and despair but passion and abiding love, and his picture is all the more powerful for it. In my book a great film, the best of the decade.

First published in Businessworld 1.31.20

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